“They have our bundles split open in museums/our dresses & shirts at auctions/our languages on tape/our stories in locked rare book libraries/our dances on film/The only part of us they can't steal/is what we know
.” --Chrystos, Menominee author and activist
The sharp, impersonal white and stainless surfaces of the laboratory were a stark contrast to the organic lines and expressive character of the artifacts laid out on them. There was something so disconnected , so discordant about watching all the lab coated technicians descending on ritual masks, painted shields, hand carved staffs, and even traditional children’s toys. Tablets of Ancient cuneiform, rotting cloth, musty tapestries and parchment scrolls: this was the dissection of a civilization, a people.
In the middle of it all sat Ifalna the Cetra, on her own table, waiting for her own inspection—though hopefully it would feel a little less invasive than the scrapings a gloved young man next to her was doing on a bowl.
As fluorescent lights flickered their sickly glow down on the proceedings, Ifalna rose, wandering among the benches to reach out to these spots of deep familiarity studded like stars in a sea of sterile inquiry. When she had agreed to all this, to teach Gast about her culture, she had seen him as the man of the field he appeared to be, all pith helmet and khakis and a thirst for truth in experience. He seemed to be the one to pass the torch on to, a human who could change the future of this planet, let her finally rest from her constant vigil, fulfill her guardianship.
It wasn’t that she begrudged her work, her relationship to the Planet. How could she? She was Cetra, incapable of anything but the loyal service she was assigned since her birth. The Planet was her mother, her provider, the substance of her being.
And the stage for her suffering. For grief and loss, for accumulating memories that hung around her shoulders like ghosts. It was the unwillingly vessel for Heaven’s Dark Harbinger, tainted with viral sin that made her recognize far too many of the voices in the otherworldly chorus that sounded continually in the back of her mind. She had spent her life fighting for her way of life, her being, for Gaia herself. Now another storm was coming: Gaia’s Northern scab had been unwittingly picked. The genesis of Gast’s interest in Ifalna and what she was revealed itself in shades of pain and death. And Ifalna? She… was tired.
She could pass on all the artifacts she wanted, point them to all the temples that once stood, but if she could not impart to him, to them, this team, the serious nature of what they were tampering with, the millennia of work they were overthrowing, the sacrifice of her own people they were hellbent on bringing to naught, all these things were worthless to humanity and the Planet.
Urgency rose within her as she feared her words lost in the siren’s shriek of Jenova’s power. It had learned so much over the years—too much—and knew how to appeal to the beings that used to be resistant. There was a reason the surviving Cetra defected, moved in among their distant brethren, but that protection was lost now that the source had been unearthed.
Trembling fingers reached out to brush across the head of a drum. The electronic beeping of monitors and scanners morphed themselves into a steady rhythm, the voice of the instrument keeping time for moving feet and rising voices, singing praises around the light of a bonfire. She could smell the smoke and feel the flame, the closeness of beings in true union and understanding. Never again would she experience that on this side; but she had a hope to regain it in the Promised Land. Some day. When her work was done.
“Ifalna?” A voice broke into her thoughts as a hand touched her elbow. She looked up at Faremis, matching his concerned smile with a reassuring one. “Are… you still all right with all this?”
She would teach him. She would help him understand. The rest might be deaf, but he had willing ears—didn’t he? Wasn’t this Gaia’s will? She had to keep her faith it would all work out as it should. “What must be must be.”
The night air was so fresh, the sky so clear. There was just a nip in the gentle breeze that played around her shoulders. Ifalna let her shawl slip as she made her way across the newly planted farm land.
The gouges of machinery tracts and the openness of the stars was so… empty. Only slightly less empty than the mansion felt right now. All the fighting, the arguing. And Gast was giving up. He finally believed her but he didn’t think halting the project was the solution: he wanted to run.
And she would probably run with him, she realized. She had become so attached—dangerously so, perhaps, but this seemed as much her path as anything else she had done. Was she right? Were her own personal feelings getting in the way?
Was this what loneliness truly felt like? This uncertainty, this isolation—this sense of boundary and finite. Smallness. It wasn’t something Ifalna was used to.
If in answer to her worry, the wind picked up, bringing the scent of spring blossoms with it. She breathed deeply, letting go of her dark worries as she slipped off her shoes, toes and heels sinking into damp earth. Arms lifted up towards the heavens as she cleared her head. Finally coming to quiet in her soul, her energy reached out, touching the seeds beneath her feet, the stand of trees at the edge of the field, the sleeping scientists in the building nearby. All the villagers came to her senses, and the creeping monsters. The tides and turnings of the Planet creaked into a tangible feeling for her: it was those tendrils of her own aura reached out to web across the great and noble system—the organism that was Gaia.
Another breath and… Ifalna was the monsters, the people. She was the tide and the moving stars and the spinning planet on its axis. She wasn’t just a daughter of Gaia: she was Gaia. The swelling music of the Lifestream crescendoed as she remembered she was not small, not finite, but infinite: for she was a part of this world, and therefore, it was a part of her. In the wake of such connectedness, her heart drowned out the budding fears in the influx of universal love that was the Planet’s greatest gift to her children.
“What is love?” The sound of Hojo and the Turk, Vincent, screaming at each other echoed down the halls of Nibelheim. A very pregnant Lucrecia leaned on the piano bench, giving Ifalna a fervent, broken expression swirling with a tumult of thought and indecision.
Ifalna waited, watering some house plants nearby until the scientist could let loose her tongue and finish the thought. “Because… I think I’m in it, but I’ve no basis for comparison.” The Cetra paused, her eyes darting to the locked office for only a moment before intuitively studying the way Lucy suddenly looked down at her swollen belly, rubbing it protectively.
“Well, Lucy dear, it’s not really something you can verify. You just have to… feel it.” How she wanted to help the young woman, encourage that spark in those guilty brown eyes. To give her back her strength, empower the compassion and sensitivity she had watched Lucrecia beat back in herself so often. She could be such a power to be reckoned with--an ally to this Planet.
“But what does it feel like, then, Iffy?”
There had to be a way into her heart. In a swirl of magenta, Ifalna crossed the room to pull her own shawl around Lucy’s shoulders. A well-worked but still soft hand caressed one of the scientist’s cheeks as she laid a motherly kiss on the other.
And now, here she was repeating the gesture for Aerith, though the small girl’s flood of tears were breaking Ifalna’s heart in ways she hadn’t realized possible. Torn between her daughter’s comfort and her own rising peace as darkness closed in, she hung on as long as she could, until she was resigned to lay back on the train station platform. Her worn, weak palm set itself shakily on Aerith’s chest. “This will tell you…” Ifalna’s breath was ragged gasps as she nodded to Elmyra, who settled a firm hand on her daughter’s shaking shoulder as she pressed the white materia into Aerith’s grasp, passing on her own wisdom and will to the soul she had been searching for so long. “Listen, and you will know.”