We came to the door on Market Day, Eas—the day work begins again. The boards were old and worn, with spaces between them large enough for a curious eye to peer through. I had never seen what waited beyond—I had only watched the Elders and their apprentices steal away, the dry splintered wood rapping against the frame as it closed: a sound I grew to love so well. I had never noticed the sigil carved in looping spirals down its side like a spray of ivy, betraying little of that which took place within.
Today—the day after my brother was taken by the Aux—was the first day I was invited over its threshold.
This was the Dry Season in the year 423 Rebirth. I had reached my 11th Birth Season, or 10th Solar Year for those who reckoned in time outside the dome of Watertown. The division of Tarra into the land of Solace and the World of Mann was but a story to me then, learned from Numi in the Great Hall.
Maybe that day my grandmother finally trusted that she could keep me, now that the others were gone and I had been left behind; or perhaps she busied herself with my initiation in order to hold back the tidal wave of grief from Dani’s loss. Nevertheless, she brought me, my face still salty with tears, and placed my hand on the door along with hers.
“Elyssa, you must be the one to open it,” Mareah said. The door was surprisingly light and easy to move, the latch barely catching. One push was all it took to deliver me in.
She held my hand as we entered into the darkness of the antechamber, my good foot nearly tripping on the threshold. “Steady yourself now,” came a familiar voice, reedy with years of singing. Nona shuffled forward to meet us, her heavy body encumbered by her ample robe. After my eyes adjusted to the dim, the firelight spilling in from the Great Hall danced across the deep creases of her lovely old face. “You are one of us now,” she said, joy bubbling up through her words.
“Soon to be one of us,” Mareah corrected with a chuckle. “Here you go, my dear friend, getting ahead of yourself again.” Mareah’s hand was still grasping mine, the paper-thin skin of her fingers soft against the bone. “Are the others here?”
“All except Numi,” Nona replied, suppressing exasperation.
“Always living by her own time, that one.” Mareah clucked.
“We can at least get her ready so we can start once we’re all assembled,” Mareah stated pragmatically. “Come now, Elyssa. I will show you to your seat and we’ll help you with your robe.”
Nona produced a large cloak of dark blue cloth and draped it across my slight frame. Kina, Nona’s apprentice, stood tall and lithe next to the stout Elder, gracefully handing her a long gray sash that the old woman tied about my waist. Nona gestured her thanks, and Kina signed in reply. Mareah smoothed the fabric over my shoulders and rested her hands there a moment, reassuring me with her touch.
“Now you are ready to join us,” Nona said, looking me over with satisfaction.
Behind a drab curtain I could see the handful of Elders sitting around the main hearth in the center of the chamber, with two apprentices kneeling in front of them. A faint path was worn into the bare floor of the Great Hall’s entrance, the dirt powdery under my cloth-wrapped feet. Mareah hobbled beside me with her aspen staff, still holding my free hand as she showed me to my place in the circle. With all eyes on us, the journey from the entrance to the circle felt like an eternity. Nona and Kina came along after us, staying a respectful distance behind.
Sitting directly across from me was Seeta and her apprentice, Whil. Even in the firelight I could see the twisted deformity that was Whil’s right hand as she cradled it with her left, as was her habit. Seeta, blind from infancy, seemed to be staring right through me. Next to her was Mora, the scars from a hearth fire etched deep into the muscles of her forearm and just visible on the tight skin of her neck. Looking from face to face, of both Elder and apprentice, I saw the injured, the maimed: bodies touched by pain and misfortune. For the first time in so long, I wasn’t ashamed to let the stump of my right foot be seen. In this circle of brokenness, each one of them—each one of us—were merely women.
Numi shuffled in, wizened and shrunken to the size of a hunchbacked child, the hem of her robes brushing against the dirt. She settled on her seat like a bird, her face open with a grin. The others looked at her expectantly. “Well, we should begin!” she said, raising her crooked arms above her as high as her frozen joints would allow. With a laugh, she tossed a handful of something into the fire to make it spit and crackle.
By now, sweat had begun to bead on my brow. Dampness trickled down my sides, fortunately hidden by my heavy robe. I felt the weight of Mareah’s comforting hands on my shoulders as the Council of Elders was called to order.
“Today is a new day,” Numi began. “Today, the circle will be increased. Today, we welcome a child of Mareah’s line—a Broken Child, an Undine Daughter—to join herself to our Body, to serve those who are also broken, in order to return to wholeness. For those who support her, say so it be.”
“So it be!” the women raised their voices in reply.
“For anyone who withholds her support, speak now with conviction or forever hold your tongue.”
Numi smiled, the few teeth she had intact gleaming in the firelight. “Then so it be, indeed!”
Numi returned to her perch as Nona rose, her thick legs ponderous beneath her. “We who are the Forgotten Ones Who Never Forget, we who have been cursed with Pain, are blessed with Healing. In our hands we carry life, we carry renewal; with our feet we walk the path of the Wise Ones. From our lips pour comfort, truth, power. With these lips, we promise our guidance to you, Elyssa Marrow. With our hands, we vow our care and protection. In our minds, we take an oath to you to impart wisdom and learning, and offer unwavering compassion.”
“For those who were denied the teachings of the Firmament, we pass along the knowledge of our people,” Mora added, her voice raised though her body remained seated. “Denied the trainings of the body, we are the Fortunate who train the mind and hands to bring healing to our city. Let our line be unbroken!”
Kina and Whil tossed incense into the fire. The heart of the Great Hall filled with pungent smoke, causing my eyes to water and my head to spin.
“This is the Undine Way!” Seeta said. “The water rises in the channels as life-blood flows through our veins. We are the life-blood of Watertown. From the Filling Season to the Dry Season, we flow through the cycle of life with the cycle of life flowing through us. We are the keepers of the cycle, steadfast in our love and humility. Hear these words and remember!”
Numi produced a wooden bowl of water, which slipped and sloshed as she passed it around the circle of Elders until Mareah received it in her deft hands. From behind my head, I heard my grandmother’s clear words:
“I bless you in life, my sweeting,” she began gently. “I bless you in wisdom. I bless you in spirit, and in the power to heal. I bless you in kindness and compassion, so you can hold the newborn babe in your arms with love, and the dying with sacred tenderness. You—whose number means nothing to the Capitol—you will be given a new mark, the Water Mark of the Undine, borne in Flame and cooled by River. For this is the Undine Way!”
My heart leapt as I saw in Whil’s good hand the glint of a branding iron, so hot now that it glowed red. Through the heavy smoke and fogginess of my head, I hadn’t noticed her holding the metal to the fire. “I’m afraid,” I whispered with desperation, turning to my grandmother.
“Yes, and that is alright,” she replied quietly to me. “You will be initiated through the Pain, but it will not touch you. The Water Mark will forever stay, binding us to you and you to us.” She pulled aside her robe to show her own scar, lightened over the years but still visible where it was nestled in the place where shoulder meets chest, a hand’s width above the heart. “Are you ready? I will hold you.”
Nona kneeled in front of me with the brand clutched by the three fingers remaining on her right hand. Part spiral, part flowing water, the sigil of red-hot metal steamed so profusely that I felt it radiating onto my face. “Hold her hair and robe back, my friend,” she said to Mareah. I was trembling uncontrollably, my body cold.
“Breathe in, Elyssa,” my grandmother said. “We are here with you, and we will shield you from the Pain.”
Mareah held me tightly to her as I buried my face into her softness. Nona was singing lowly, repeating the melody of a song I would come to love so well. She kneeled patiently, her old voice wavering as I clung to my grandmother’s tender frame. Mareah gently pulled me far enough away from her for her farsighted eyes to see. Smiling, she held my cheeks—hot as coal in her cool hands—and said, “If this is not your wish, then you can refuse it. You are strong enough to take the Water Mark, but if it is not what your heart wants then you can refuse. We will still be here for you the same way we have always been.”
All eyes were on me as they waited for my reply. I had never considered before that I could follow another path. Though my grandmother sounded sincere in her words, I did not trust that she truly meant them.
“No, I’m ready, Grandmare,” I said, returning her steady gaze with my own. Wiping the long black strands of my hair from my forehead, I sat up a little taller. The lines of Mareah’s face pulled up into a smile, but the soft look in her eyes confused me. I feared she sensed my hesitation, so I took a deep breath and mustered a smile. After a moment, as if she were convinced, Mareah took a vial from the folds of her robe and placed a dropper full under my tongue. The taste of the acrid herbs puckered my mouth while the alcohol stung my throat, and I tried not to gag.
“Come, now,” Mareah bade me. “Your future is waiting.”
Nona held the brand into the fire once more to rekindle its ember glow. Numi shuffled forward, her drooping arms outstretched and the husks of her hands cupping the air around my head. Nona continued weaving the enchanting melody with her rasping voice. Whil wafted a bundle of dried herbs about me, their leaves aglow with fire coughing out black, pungent smoke. The world in the chamber began to swim, the light shimmering. Mareah gently pulled my long dark hair aside and folded my robe away from my shoulder. I sensed when the brand touched my skin, and my nose filled with the smell of my own scalded flesh. But I felt no pain.
They held me there, all the mothers of my home. The warmth of the brand emanated out from my flesh, but the Pain—that primitive force of fear, of suffering—did not gain purchase. I do not know how long I sat there, swaying on the stream of Nona’s song, dulled by the smoke of Whil’s herbs. But when my senses returned to me, my eyes focused on Numi’s face, alarmingly close to mine.
“Now you will awake, child,” she said. “It is a new day.”
Painting by Adam David. Used with permission.