You were a very little girl, barely three.
Your mother was traveling, far away in Sinkiang, and our routine had adjusted. I began my day before dawn at the shrine, preparing myself for the spiritual strain of the work ahead of me that day. My devotions completed, I went to wake you, and we breakfasted together. We played at chess, and you defeated me, seeing much farther ahead in the game than I.
You were a prodigy, even by our family’s standards.
“Do you know everything?” I asked, not entirely in jest.
“Sometimes,” you replied simply.
I left you to entertain yourself in the hall, and went to my study to begin my work.
Not long after, you somehow entered the room yourself.
“Daddy,” you said, “Sminx coming.” Your voice was trembling.
I looked up from the codex I was transcribing, a startled shout on my lips. Never would I have allowed you into that room when that book was on the table, and to this day I do not know how you got in. But I read the fear on your face, and anxiety displaced the anger in my breast.
“No,” I said, “Sphinx is locked in her room in the basement; she can’t come out.” This was to reassure myself as much as to soothe you. The beast was a menace, and had been confined with much difficulty. I did not wish to learn what she would do if released.
“Another sminx coming,” you cried.
“There is no other sphinx,” I told you.
“Yes,” you said, “there is. She wants her sister.” These words you uttered with such certitude that I did not doubt you.
“Where’s the sphinx now?” I asked. I kept my voice very calm. I hurriedly closed the book and locked its clasps, gathered it up with my pages and locked them in the silver cabinet. I took the ruby talisman from its casket and hung it around my neck.
“Can you tell me where the sphinx is?” I asked again.
“Outside. I can show you,” you said. You reached up to take my finger in your hand to lead me from the room. I stopped you at the door long enough to lock it by all earthly means, but did not take time to do more. You pulled me by the finger along the corridor to the east stairs, and I carried you to the upper floor.
“The Moon Room,” you said. I set you down outside the door and we entered. You ran across the carpets to the window looking out on the drop to the lake and I followed close behind.
You stood on your toes and pointed. “That way,” you said. I looked across the water to the forested island and beyond it to the mountains on the horizon. A tremendous wall of dark clouds approached from the north. It was very beautiful.
“Is the sphinx far away?” I asked. “Can we run to the refuge before she comes?” If your mother had been at home, we could easily have defended the house, but I was not confident I could do it myself. Whether our attacker simply desired to rescue her sister, or whether she wished for vengeance, I judged we would be safer in our ultimate sanctuary.
“Hurry,” you said. I had wanted to hear a more certain answer.
I lifted you up, wrapped you in my robe and tucked you under my arm. I rushed from the room and down the stairs. The rain had begun when we went out into the forest.
Two hundred yards; that’s all we had to travel along the mossy path to the refuge. Such a short distance to run. Such a short time that we would be exposed and vulnerable.
“Sminx coming!” you screamed, and I heard branches breaking above us. I dropped you; you were entangled in my robe, and I stumbled as I raised the talisman. I saw no sphinx. A great weight struck me from behind, and all went dark.
I regained my senses before very long, I suppose, lying on my face in the wet moss. I rose to my knees and wailed in despair when I could not see you.
I stumbled to my feet and ran off the path, madly calling for you as I crashed through the forest. I had no hope. Of all the ways the sphinx could have avenged her sister’s imprisonment, she chose the most horrible. She had taken you and I would not see you again in this life.
Yet, in my unbearable grief, I prayed. I envisioned the Icon, which I have seen only once, and which you will see when you make your pilgrimage, and prayed as I have never prayed in my life. The simple prayers I learned as a child, the greater tablets, I chanted them all, over and over, pausing only to cry out your name.
I still have you, so of course I received a miracle. I do not know how long I had wandered, but I stopped suddenly and fell silent, thinking I had heard your voice. I stood as a statue, listening to the wind and the falling rain for moments that seemed eternities, and then I heard, I was certain that I heard, what I so desperately wanted to hear, your tiny voice crying for me.
We called to each other, and in a little time I came to a little clearing, a perfect circle of grass and wildflowers. In the middle, the sphinx lay supine, her tawny pelt drenched in blood, her throat torn open by her own claws. You sat in the wet grass beside her, weeping. You held up your arms and I rushed to gather you up. We sobbed together as I carried you home.
Poor, foolish sphinx, she chose to toy with you of all people. She asked my “sometimes” omniscient child a riddle.
Carl Steiger is a career bureaucrat who is sometimes fortunate enough to find fulfillment on his own time.