“Our Lady of the Light” by S.R. Mandel

“Our Lady of the Light” by S.R. Mandel, geographer

The empire of Immernen is home to two kinds of gods: those that can be seen, and those that cannot. No one can agree in which category to put Our Lady of the Light.

Some places make it easy. The eastern island of Kannowo has gods of the first degree. Its forty-seven city deities, all siblings, inhabit trees dispersed through the villages, while their mother lives near the capital in a waterfall. She regularly ascends and descends from the heavens, and this passage (complete with her habitual red parasol) is picturesquely chronicled in drawings, ink renderings, and artistically photographed postcards, which can be collected and brought home as devotionals, or mailed to one’s aunts and uncles as a symbol of dutiful remembrance.

In contrast stands the Yotang archipelago in the west, whose people adore a genderless divinity named Spen. This good-natured entity can be communicated with only by means of letters left in parish mailboxes, which are ritually burned by means of postage. As Spen has no physical form, it can, evidently, be classed among the invisible deities (—a point which has, in fact, provoked centuries of concern among Yoyang’s hereditary temple architects, as it is a matter of personal philosophy not only what sort of design Spen might like to look upon, but also through what manner of door the deity, should it choose to descend, could enter).

As for Our Lady of the Light, her worship is strongest in Immernen’s six northern provinces, the heartland of the country. In agricultural Emen, she is most admired in her spring manifestations: her long hands reaching down through rainclouds, over the young wheat. Wooded, backland Menarmen holds her rituals under sun-spotted leaves; while in drier Timan, the people set prisms in their white-curtained windows to catch the shadows of her passage.

Gemmen, abode of astrologers, pronounces her liturgies under the emerging stars. Rich and busy Siman lays flowers before its blazing glass screens. And Ekermen—that restive, festive borderland—looks for and finds her only in fugitive glints: the erupting firework, the spark of the streetwalker’s cigarette, the summer geometry of fireflies.

But is Our Lady of the Light one of the visible or the invisible gods? On this point, despite long debate, no truce can be disposed.

On the one hand (argue those on the side of the Invisible) she has no form. She cannot be rendered in clay or wood or paint. No one can point out where, exactly, she stands.

And yet (counter those for Visible), do we not use our eyes to see her? Is it not by our vision that we sense her presence? Is it not physical sight that tells us whether or not she has manifested in the chapel, or the home altar, or hovering over the endless, looming, rain-foreshadowing hills?

Luckily, most people in the six provinces are unworried by the debate. Blessed with the good fortune of not being academics, they go equably about their work and rituals, and most express, when asked, a general sense of their luck in being able, almost unique among the peoples of the world, to be able to find their deity with their eyes whenever they need her—reaffirming by day or by night their faith in her luminous, numinous presence.

(Though their eyes will cloud when asked about the Schism: everyone knows someone who’s vanished to it—who has fled Immernen’s calm daytime world and its inescapable patroness, seeking to enter the service of Our Lady of the Dark: She who may or may not exist; who is seen by most as a mere shadow or facet of her radiant sister; and who, if she is anywhere to be found among those shuttered convents, those basement priories, those eternally blindfolded congregations, may surely be presumed to be among both the Invisible, and the terrible, gods.)

Most people, of course, consider this quest misguided. “Dark will come soon enough,” they say. “Why seek it early?”

And, indeed, these six provinces are among the only places in the Empire that do not practice the custom of burial in earth, but instead lay out their dead on platforms in a place raised for the purpose (star towers in Gemmen, Menarmen’s skull trees), so that their eyes, sewn open by custom and protected from birds by the ritual goggles of the dead, may gaze up into the brilliance from which mortal eyes must turn away, until she descends—without parasols, unfettered by doors—in a blaze of unbeholdable radiance to take them up into the folds of her unending splendor: Our Lady Of the Light.

S.R. Mandel’s is from San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, in that order. She is participating in the Odyssey writers’ workshop in 2019. She has lived in France, central Japan, and the Middle East, and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apex, Lackington’s, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. She likes things that are several things at the same time. Find her @susannah_speaks or online at www.srmandel.com.