1.

Some say that Mistress Ata Madidi is not of man, but birthed from the brackish waters of the Ebedi Ocean. They say she is divine, called into being by the need of one desperate woman to tame man and claim a free life. Like the ocean, the beloved Mistress is a fertile environ, brutal and rakish. She strips her charges of their coverings, their pasts, and their names. She becomes their new mothers. She shapes their bodies to contain their futures.

At the gates of her compound, beneath the cold gaze of twilight stars, the Mistress circled around to inspect me like a sheep for slaughter. She lifted my skirts and fingered my colt thin thighs. She tugged aside the neck of my tunic and ran her fingers across my collar bone and breasts. She gazed long into my eyes and read me like a soothsayer reads the stars.

The Mistress spat her disgust in a yellow wad at my feet.

“When I am finished, you will be a woman.” She signaled for me to follow, then turned and walked away.

“I have been a woman for four years,” I said, feeling the need to defend myself from the rough woman’s rude assessment.

The Mistress chuckled. “The first lesson you must learn is that you are nothing.”

2.

The Mistress’ compound is tucked into a hidden corner of the lush Nzuri Valley. Behind a wall constructed from copper and gray river stone she cultivates an orchard, and a farm, and a flock of fat sheep that graze in green fields. She has created an odd village here, where only women live and work.

I share a bare windowless dwelling with six other girls. We are each given a mat of woven bamboo leaves and a single wrap to cover our nakedness. We are not allowed to leave during daylight, that the sun might toughen and dry our skin. Initially, we are forbidden to speak to each other, for fear that our minds might become cluttered with the detritus of our old lives. We are fed fatty meat and thick stews with rice. We drink milk sweetened with mashed dates and honey.

And we rest to gather strength for our future lives.

“What are we to do here all day in silence?” whined one tall girl from the east.

The Mistress, squat and round as a melon, reached up and thumped the girl in the center of her forehead. “There is an entire world contained within the cavern of your skull. Explore it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You can create whole worlds and populate them by merely wishing it,” said the Mistress.

3.

There are yet others who believe that Mistress Ata Madidi came to this world by way of a dark roiling storm cloud. They say that she is the embodiment of fecund indignation, honed into the electric point of a thunder bolt, prepared to strike down male transgressors. Little do they know the Mistress, for she does not wish to strike down men, nor subdue them.

She simply wishes to open their eyes to the worth of their women.

She simply wishes to open the eyes of women to the worth of themselves.

After months in the fattening room the smooth flat planes of our bodies expand into undulating curves and soft pliant folds. Each night we bathe in the frigid Kubwa River born within the gelid grottos of the Sonsuz Mountains. Regardless of the season we lay naked beneath the pale moon and stars. We learn to tolerate the summer’s swelter and calm the cold quavering of our bones.

“Why must we subject ourselves to this immodesty?” asked a dark girl who looked to be the oldest among our group. “There is no dignity in nakedness.”

“Neither is there dignity to be found in the finest garments. Your grace and honor clothe your spirit, not your body. No one can sully that part of you.”

4.

An obscure legend exists regarding Mistress Ata Madidi. It claims she is a flare separated from our distant sun, so hot is her anger and her love. So consuming is her need to shape and mold and grow. For all that she is blistering, she is not of our sun. In truth, the Mistress is of the earth, much like you and me.

The Mistress teaches us which parts of our bodies to apply musk oil to ensure fertility. She teaches us which herbs, when burned above a new baby’s crib, will chase away greedy spirits. We learn yet of other herbs, that when consumed, preserve our strong spirits while dulling our perception, so that we will care not that our husbands stink of adrenaline and war and sometimes other women.

“Why dull our minds, Mistress. Why not secure husbands who will be calm and dutiful?”

The Mistress laughed at my query until her face was wet with tears. When she regained her breath she told me this: “Even if you love a man as fiercely as you are able, there still will come one day when he will cease to be your lover and you will swear you never knew him.”

The Mistress tried to stroke away the horror on my face.

“What is the lesson in this, Mistress?” I was eager to know.

The Mistress’ face glowed amber in the light of the hearth. She glanced at us each in turn as we sat in a circle around her.

“The lesson? Sometimes a woman must stoop if she is to conquer. Not all battles are won through sweat and bloodshed. The most cunning warriors do little and keep silent.”

5.

My sisters and I have grown fat in the last year. Our bodies are now fit to be adorned in the bright layers woven by the old women of Ramineh. Our necks, wrists, and ankles are ringed with gold and gems mined from the floor of the Ebedi. We wear so much finery that we can barely lift our necks to gaze up into the faces of our new husbands. It is with this wealthy weight that we must follow our husbands to our new homes on foot, even if it be over one hundred miles.

As I pass out of the gates, my husband ahead to guide me towards our new life, I ask, “Mistress, why must I make this journey on foot when I have yet so far to go?”

Pulling back her shoulders, the Mistress shifted catching a sun ray at her back. She lit up like a torch, her silver hair a shimmering crown on her head. She seemed to swell before my eyes, an otherworldly flame, a spear from the sky, a sovereign creature from beneath the waves, mother of us all. The sight of her caught my breath. When I blinked, the Mistress was her old self again.

“No queen ascends her throne without first struggling to reach it.” The Mistress fingered a gem that dangled from my ear. “You can choose to carry the weight of this world with you to your destination or you can sacrifice it all for your freedom.”

“Another lesson?”

“You tell me.”

Originally published in An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables, edited by Rose Lemberg (Stonebird Press, 2016).

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Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her family. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times, she juggles, none too successfully, the multiple other facets of her very busy life. She has been published at or has publications upcoming in Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine, Diabolical Plots and others. You can also hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. Khaalidah is co-editor at PodCastle audio magazine, where she is on a mission to encourage more women and POC to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.