In the Temple of the Goddess of Fear, Thora was safe. She still dreamed of the beast most nights, but the Sisters always heard her screams and came into her room to reassure her. The Sisters told her the beast couldn’t enter the Temple. The Goddess of Fear was stronger than the beast. Thora repeated these reassurances to herself each night. The beast cannot enter. The Goddess of Fear is stronger.
She’d spent six months with the Sisters, and she tried to repay them for their protection by doing chores for them. The days were clean, with light sparkling through the stained-glass windows. Each morning, she wondered if Jon would return for her, but night always crept up and took away her hope. The days were pleasant, though. She was comforted by the gentle rhythms of the work, the slosh of the scrub brush and the swish of linens in the laundry bucket. Since she’d arrived in a panic, running from the beast, she hadn’t gone outside. She was afraid that if she stepped past the threshold of the Temple, the beast would smell her and track her there.
It was impossible to think she might lose her refuge. The Sisters wanted her to stay, but the High Priestess of All Goddesses had to approve. The High Priestess hadn’t visited the Temple since Thora had arrived, and now she was coming to live with the Sisters for an entire year. Although Thora stayed in her room when the Sisters performed their most sacred rituals, she knew too much. She was sworn to secrecy, and the Sisters trusted her, but there was reason to believe the High Priestess would not. In all the Temples, religious secrets were closely kept, and outsiders were viewed with suspicion. The Sisters said that the High Priestess guarded her Temples the way snakes guard their nests. As High Priestess, she spent a year at each Temple, rotating through each of the Temples for each of the seven Goddesses. The Temple of the Goddess of Fear was next in her rotation.
Thora hoped to make herself so useful that the High Priestess would see the benefit of keeping her on as a servant. It would have been easier if she agreed to join the order, yet she knew she couldn’t officially become one of the Sisters while she still had hope for Jon.
She couldn’t think of Jon as the beast or the beast as Jon. Growing up, he’d been the lucky one. Everyone in the village loved him for his wonderful flute-playing at parties and festivals. He made a comfortable income by building small fishing boats. Thora had been the unlucky one, her family dead by the time she was thirteen. One horrible thing after another—accidents and sicknesses and hunger. No need to relive all that. She’d been left alone in the house she grew up in, barely sustaining herself by doing other women’s laundry. When he’d fallen in love with her, the gossips in the village said she had bewitched him. It was their only explanation for why he’d be drawn to her. She had no doubt that the others in the village blamed her for leaving him, too. Even those who’d known about the beast had thought the problem was Thora’s witchery. No one had been willing to take her in for long while the beast was tracking her.
When Jon first started coming around, she’d barely been able to breathe around him. He was so handsome with his flashing eyes and shaggy hair. He’d warned her something was wrong with him, though at the time, he hadn’t known just what. She hadn’t listened to his warnings.
Forget it. She focused on scrubbing the Temple floors, the smooth blue river pebbles and fragments of sun-bleached bone arranged in dizzying spirals in the thick mortar. Surely the High Priestess would notice how clean everything was and feel the Goddess of the Fear was honored by Thora’s simple tasks.
Once the floors were done, her next duty was to rouse Sister Hilde from her afternoon terrors so she could prepare the welcome dinner for the High Priestess. As usual, the rap of her knuckles startled Hilde into shrieking.
After a moment of silence, Hilde answered her in a tremulous voice. “Thank you, Thora. I’ll be out in a moment.”
After their terrors, the Sisters sounded like dying birds for an hour or so until they recovered. They practiced twice a day. Upon waking and then after lunch, they would work themselves into a state of terror over both mundane and existential threats to the world. By doing so, they were conduits for the Goddess of Fear and could receive her wisdom. Thora knew she wasn’t strong enough to bear that kind of wisdom. She’d barely survived the terrors of her own life.
In the kitchen, she peeled the skin from boiled hazelnuts (which the High Priestess was said to be fond of) while Sister Hilde made apple-filled pastries and cut up vegetables to bake with homemade cheese. Hilde was quiet like most of the Sisters, and being in their presence generally made Thora feel like she was resting beside a gentle stream, but on that day, she couldn’t stop worrying.
“Is there anything I can do to make the High Priestess more favorable towards me?” Thora asked. “I could give her a list of the chores I do. I could point out that doing these tasks gives the Sisters more time to be afraid.”
Sister Hilde grumbled at the description. “We aren’t children. We aren’t simply afraid. We conjure real horrors and face them—for the sake of the struggling world. Thora, if you joined our Order, it would be much simpler. The High Priestess is wiser than I am, and I can never guess what she’s thinking. But I know that joining us would solve these problems.”
“I wish I could. This is such a safe place for people who are suffering, and I want to help. I’m happy and useful here. But I can’t give up on Jon. He said the wizard could help him. It might take months, but…well.” It was no use continuing. The Sisters had no faith in Jon.
“We might not have that much time. The people from your village have come to us in fear of a huge creature they’ve seen prowling on the edges of the woods at night. So far, he hasn’t entered any houses, but who knows how long he’ll stay away? When I ask the Goddess, I feel a sense of foreboding.”
“He always tries to lock himself inside at night. He tries to protect everyone.”
It had been hard to escape from him on those nights when she still thought she could tame him, but she’d been able to climb out of the window each time. As a man, he had been agile enough to dive right through the window and land on his feet, but as a beast, he was too large to fit. He’d broken down the door to come after her. When the morning came, he’d repaired it again.
“He chased you through the woods on three different nights. I’ve prayed to the Goddess and seen it, Thora. I don’t know where you got such energy from, to run until morning.” Sister Hilde put down her mixing bowl and took Thora’s hand in her floury ones. “There might be some good in him like you say. But there’s nothing you can do about it. What will it take for you to let him go?”
But when the morning light arrived, she always found Jon on the forest floor, worn-out and desperate over what he’d done. He had begged her to forgive him. “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t really me.”
“Later. I’ll think about it later.” Thora smiled apologetically at Sister Hilde, who went back to her pastries. The Sisters were so careful with her. Their daily terrors seemed to make them gentler, more compassionate than ordinary people. But the High Priestess took the breath of all seven Goddesses into her nostrils each day, and Thora doubted whether all the other Goddesses were as understanding.
That night when the High Priestess finally arrived and the Sisters lined up in the sanctuary to greet her, Thora tried to hide behind Sister Edith. She peered over Edith’s shoulder to stare at the powerful woman whose face and body were mostly obscured by her gray cloak. The High Priestess went down the line putting her hand on each Sister’s head in some sort of blessing, and when she got to Sister Edith, she asked Thora to step forward.
“Thora. You are worried about your fate.”
Thora closed her eyes and felt the warm hand of the High Priestess on her head.
The High Priestess leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Come see me in the sanctuary after dinner.”
She could almost smell the beast’s breath again. The scars from the claw-wounds on her shoulders throbbed. She sat as far away from the High Priestess as she could at the table, and she only managed a couple of mouthfuls of food. Night was coming. She knew the beast would smell her if she left the Temple, even if she stayed outside the village. Maybe she could get the High Priestess to give her one more night. Maybe one more night was all Jon needed—just a bit more time to seek out the wizard who cursed him and beg him to reverse the curse.
Instead of helping with the dishes, she slipped out to the sanctuary. The mosaic floors and walls looked holy and solemn in the candlelight. The sight soothed her. The Goddess of Fear was present, wasn’t she? She cared for everyone in torment, everyone whose heart was bathed in the acid of oppression. Everyone in danger. As she waited for the High Priestess to arrive, Thora knelt on the rough floor, closed her eyes, and begged the Goddess of Fear to protect her, and to protect Jon, too.
“Why do you care so much about your beast?”
She turned around to find the High Priestess standing behind her. She helped Thora to her feet. She was quieter than Thora had imagined she’d be, her voice barely above a whisper. She didn’t sound cruel or kind, and she didn’t remove her gray hood so that Thora could see her whole face. All Thora could see were her eyes glittering in the candlelight and that she wasn’t smiling.
“I hate the beast, but I love Jon. I made a commitment to him because I loved him. You don’t know him. He’s—”
The High Priestess laughed, but she didn’t sound amused. “I know everyone in this country. The Goddesses show me everything. I know your beast. I know your Jon, too. Jon is a clever man. He’s quick like a cat. In fact, he was quicker than your cat.”
Thora let out a soundless gasp. It was true, and she’d pushed the memory aside. As the beast, Jon had slaughtered her cat. Her precious Milksop, the golden striped cat she’d loved so long.
“He didn’t mean to.” It embarrassed her to say this in front of the High Priestess. Didn’t she sound like a fool?
“I know he told you it’s all the fault of Dominus the wizard. Dominus is no friend of mine, but he didn’t curse Jon out of sheer cruelty. Jon went to him and said he wanted to be more than human. He wanted great power. He asked the wizard to touch him with his magic. Dominus isn’t known for having great control of his magic, Thora. Jon knew it was a risk, and he took it. Now he is what he is.”
The beast wasn’t Jon. Of course, the High Priestess knew Thora’s thoughts.
“Who is to say who the real Jon is? What is any person? Each of us is our own separate country with deserts and teeming rivers and decaying tree stumps and prismatic leaves.”
The High Priestess spoke in riddles. It was the weird way of religion. The Sisters spoke this way too sometimes after their most sacred rituals.
“I don’t presume to know the sacred mysteries of life or death,” Thora said. “But the Jon I knew was a kind man. I promise he was. Once he even made a splint for a fox with a lame paw. He was so gentle that the fox didn’t mind. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but it meant something to me.”
“You’re brave, Thora. And you’re very intelligent. I’m not saying this because I pity you. I never lie.”
Thora hadn’t thought of herself as brave or intelligent, especially not when she was screaming so hard she thought her lungs would tear as she ran through the woods, listening for the grunt of the beast behind her. Not when she was risking her life night after night, hoping that she and the hidden Jon could somehow tame the beast. Always failing.
The High Priestess pulled Thora into an embrace. She smelled like the sea and simmering tea leaves and smoke. At this proximity, Thora could feel the power of the High Priestess. It was much stronger than the power of the beast.
The High Priestess pulled away again, as remote as she had been before. “I am not a Goddess, Thora. I’m just close to them. I’m a messenger. I’ve asked the Goddess of Fear if you can remain here—it’s her decision, not mine. And she says she wants to meet you first.”
“Meet me? I’m here every day.” Thora loved the Goddess—she put her love into her chores. But she was afraid. How close did the Goddess want to get to her?
“Closer,” the High Priestess whispered.
The ceremony was to take place in the sanctuary, but Sister Joan brought a pillow and blanket from Thora’s room so Thora would be more comfortable lying on the floor.
It was one of the rituals Thora hadn’t been allowed to take part in before. She would drink a concoction prepared by Sister Hilde (who Thora learned was a master of potions as well as pastries), and it would bring on a vision.
She was terrified of the Goddess, but she was also desperate to see her. She had so many questions for her, and she hoped that by gaining wisdom from the Goddess, she might also gain comfort. Without that, Thora feared she’d spend her whole life waiting for Jon to recover. Now that she was so close to meeting the Goddess, she could admit to herself that she wasn’t sure if Jon would ever recover. She didn’t really know how much of the beast was Jon or how much of Jon was the beast. But now she would find out.
The potion was both bitter and sweet, like dandelion leaves cut up with strawberries. If she joined the Sisters, maybe she’d learn the secrets of making it. She often helped Hilde in the kitchen.
But Jon. What will happen to him? He’ll be alone forever.
As the potion took effect and Thora’s eyelids grew heavy, the Sisters gathered around her and sang a song about a turtledove and a raincloud. Darkness fell. She felt herself wandering through that darkness, reaching out her hands to try to feel her way, but there was nothing to steady herself against.
A light shone in the distance, and she saw shadows moving in the light. She counted the shadows. Fourteen. Seven Goddesses and seven Gods. They moved. They swayed. Yes, they were dancing. She tried to get closer so she could dance with them, but there was some unbridgeable gap that kept her away. Deep, strange joy crept over her. It was like she wasn’t there. No more self. Only happy Goddesses and Gods, united in love before the world was made.
Things changed, though. In the midst of the deities, shadows of two giants appeared. The giants were even taller than the deities. One giant strangled the other and cut up the other’s body, and with the parts and pieces, he made the world. The dead giant’s head became the earth, his body the sky. The deities circled the world and mourned the dead with a frightful, wheezing song. Yet as they mourned, the new earth teemed with life. The remaining giant shrank himself and walked on the earth spreading the glow of humanity.
The deities had made the giants, hadn’t they? They must have known what would happen. The earth was made in violence. Life killed life to sustain itself. The deities celebrated while they mourned and mourned while they celebrated.
One of the shadows approached Thora and walked into a clarifying light. She knew this was the Goddess of Fear. Her body was the color of dried blood, and her eyes and lips sizzled like fire. Her limbs were muscular, and she moved with quick grace.
And her face was divided. When she turned to the left, she was an intent-looking lioness, and when she turned to the right, she was a white-haired and wise old woman. When she sat on the indistinct ground beside Thora, she towered over her. Thora wanted to touch her, but she was afraid. This Goddess lived inside Thora and had tortured her. Yet she had also kept her alive.
When the Goddess shook her head or shifted her body, a breeze blew over Thora carrying the smell of faraway fruit and a thunderstorm. On the horizon, the other deities moved aimlessly, lost without one of their members.
There was so much she wanted to ask, but she didn’t know how.
“You want to stay in my Temple,” the Goddess said with the music of coins falling over cobblestones. Thora had expected an ominous rumble, but her voice was light and high.
“But for your lover.”
“Yes.” Something inside her groaned, as if she’d stepped on warped wood. “Is he really so bad?”
The Goddess stared at her as if waiting for her to continue.
Thora unburdened herself. “I have some wonderful memories of him, Goddess. I do love him. But he’s been cursed. And I love my life too much to let mine be destroyed before its time.”
She hadn’t realized that she loved her life until she said it. Yes, she wanted more life, in spite of its difficulties. She didn’t want to waste it on the rage of a beast.
“You wonder if Jon is good when each night he transforms into something evil,” the Goddess said. “I have seen you in my Temple, and I know you are someone who craves understanding.”
Thora nodded, abandoning all modesty.
“Who is good?” the Goddess asked. “The world is bathed in blood. All of our genius and violence went into the creation of the world, and every good thing contains us all, and every bad thing contains us all. Even before mortals, we deities imagined violence and death, and each of us are in each of you. So tell me—how could a simple man be only good? You already know there is evil lurking in the man you love.”
Thora listened. The Goddess understood her. She was sitting beside her. She was her friend. For so long, Thora had been afraid to tell herself that Jon was anything but good. Otherwise, she’d have to hold him responsible for the beast.
“If I join the Sisters and end my commitment to Jon, what will happen to him?”
“The same thing will happen to him if you don’t leave him. Every night when he changes, he will frighten those he comes in contact with. The fear he inspires will alienate him, and it will likely destroy him.”
“Whether I hope for him or let him go?”
“Yes. He has not seen the wizard and begged to be changed back. I do not know if he can be changed back. Either way, he isn’t really willing to give up his new power. He feels it protects him from all that’s gone wrong.”
“What has gone wrong for him? He always seemed so happy before he was the beast.”
“I see things you are unable to see. If you join the Sisters in my Temple, then your vision will expand.”
Yes! Then she would see the most fearsome visions. She would know daily terror. But at least it would be constructive fear. She could use it to empathize with others, to warn others. Her fears for Jon were for nothing. They were like using a fork and knife to try to eat the wind.
“What do I have to do to join?” Thora asked, and the look on the Goddess’s face changed from kind attention to hungry interest.
“You have to fight me,” the Goddess of Fear whispered. And her face was no longer divided in two, and she no longer had the body of a woman. She became all lioness, teeth bared and growling. After having befriended Thora and confided in her, now she was treating her like nothing but delicious prey.
“I have no weapon!” Thora cried out, and a knife appeared in her hand.
She and the lioness circled each other, and as Thora’s hand trembled, she prayed to all the deities (including the Goddess she fought) to give her strength.
The lioness struck out with a quick paw to Thora’s shoulder (a place that had been torn by the beast before), but Thora dodged. She was quicker than she had been. She tried to pretend her knife was a giant claw, and she closed her eyes and slashed at the creature until she made contact. She opened her eyes, and the lioness was gone. The Goddess had returned in her giant, golden form, with her split face. She lay on the ground with her eyes closed, a gash in her side pouring thick, golden blood. Thora ran to her and tried to stop the bleeding, pressing her hands into the gash.
“Did I kill you? Did I kill you?” she shouted. What would the world do without the Goddess of Fear? Thora couldn’t live with herself if she was responsible for killing her.
The Goddess’s eyes opened, and so did Thora’s. She found herself back in the Temple beneath the weight of her blankets. Had it been a dream? When she looked down at her hands, though, she found them still covered with the Goddess’s shimmering blood, as if she’d bathed them in liquified gold coins.
The Sisters had crouched down, surrounding her and watching her as she slept. When they saw her stained hands, they celebrated.
“You killed the Goddess!” Sister Hilde cried, embracing Thora. “You’re one of us now.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! She told me to fight her.” Thora lay her head back down, feeling woozy. The potion was still wearing off. How could her dream have bled into reality and covered her hands?
The High Priestess asked the Sisters to step aside, and she crouched beside Thora’s head.
“Each God and Goddess requests something different as part of the initiation. The Goddess of Fear must be fought. She wants you to win. What did she look like for you? For me she was a spider.”
Thora tried to explain the split face, and everyone was impressed. With each initiation, the Goddess showed new complexities.
Before Thora rose from her makeshift bed, the Sisters washed her hands in a tub of warm water. The clotted gold softened and pulled away from her skin, the pieces breaking apart and brightening the surface of the water.
“We’ll use this to water the flowers,” Sister Joan said as she picked the remaining flecks from Thora’s hands. “We don’t want to waste the essence of the Goddess.”
“You can pour out the water and admire the golden flowers that grow. You haven’t seen them yet,” Sister Hilde said.
Yes, she could go outside now. She’d still be afraid of the beast, but now she’d killed the Goddess. And the Goddess still lived.
She stood up, and though she wanted to cry from some strange mixture of sorrow and joy, she didn’t. Jon was gone. She was a Sister. The moon was full when she went outside for the first time in six months to pour the golden water at the roots of the golden flowers. They grew above her head, and each petal was the size of her hand. She grabbed one flower and tugged it to her nose, and the smell was that of the Goddess—thunderstorms and faraway fruit. What a beautiful and horrible Goddess. She let the flower go, and it bobbed on its thick stem. She looked forward to the next day when she would explore the full Temple grounds for the first time.
Thora didn’t see the beast outside, and she didn’t dream of him that night. The next day dawned with the promise of life. Perhaps the beast did smell her when she went outside, but perhaps the Goddess of Fear held his throat when he crept too close to her temple.