An Online Literature and Art Journal

The Old Gods

Co-award winner of Editor’s Choice Award for Fiction

By: Elizabeth Burton

He was beautiful, my lover. I’d never seen a man naked before, never known the loveliness of a muscled chest, a strong thigh. What I did know were the beats of my heart, how they quickened at the sight of him, pulsed at his touch. My heart was weak, my lover said, just before he left. It fell too easily, heard what it wanted to hear.

But my heart felt his. Felt the beating through fevered skin. I know this much was true. And now I feel another heart beating inside my body, even if it doesn’t show yet. Time is the thing we do not have. If the imams find out about the child, about my relationship with its father, then I will be shunned by my community, never able to join festivities, marry, or work. My family will be disgraced and the child taken away to an orphanage. That’s if only my fellow Uyghurs find out; if the Chinese government finds out, the child will never be born.

And so I find myself here today, waiting with the deformed, the wheelchair bound, the insane. Waiting for the healer.

Part witch doctor and part medicine man, I come to him knowing he may turn me away. The old gods may not be strong enough to fix my problem. I’ve heard they are not as powerful as Allah, but they are more likely to look upon a scorned one with pity. They know what it is like to be replaced.

The imams urge us to stay away from the healer. They say Allah will be displeased. But Allah seems unmoved by anything. Allah gives, the imams say, but all I’ve seen is what he takes away. Mother, father, sisters, lover, and now child. The imams would tell me I’ve broken Allah’s law by loving a man who isn’t my husband. I want to hear what the healer says. I hope he won’t condemn this innocent child in my belly, say it was created out of anything impure. If the old gods have no pity, then I’ll find the courage to face whatever Allah wills. But if they see the truth, then maybe there is hope.

Tomorrow, I will go to a wedding. It may be the last one where I am welcomed, treated like the other women in town. I will watch the groom bring shoes to the bride’s mother, watch her good-naturedly make fun of his offering: they aren’t the right size; they’re the wrong color; this type went out of style years ago. And I will laugh at his discomfiture, like all the other women in the room. It is the women who ultimately decide on the appropriateness of the match. The bride must be won; her family can’t give in lightly. A man without the courage to face the month-long series of tasks isn’t worthy of a bride.

It could have been my wedding, if the man I loved had been brave and stayed. He was courageous enough to take what I gave freely without making any commitment but that which a man makes with his arms, his body. There are promises there, whether he wants to honor them or not.

He left the day the tightrope dancer died. He told me he loved me, but times like ours when we’re fighting for freedom, aren’t made for love. If he stayed it would mean the work camps, he said. The government was about to close in on him and his friends. They had been too vocal in their desire to be free. He offered to take me with him, but I simply wanted him to stay. I didn’t yet know about the child.

He will go to Kazakhstan where there are others like him, Uyghurs who believe Allah wants us to fight the Chinese. But none of that matters to me. I cling to the old ways of love and marriage, of raising children and living where my family and their family before them lived. I love Allah, but I hear whispers of the old gods, the ones the healer still knows how to cry out to. Even their names have been forgotten, but they are still there, waiting for us to worship once again.




In front of me is a man whose family I know. He looks through me, as I do him. There is shame in seeing the healer. I wonder if his heart needs fixing, too.

The American, Wanderline, stops to say “hello” to me. “Sarigul!” She says my name, as if the sight of me delights her. We are a friendly people, but the American’s friendliness has always unsettled me. It seems just slightly off, in the same way her tongue wraps around our words. While she has to notice that I’m standing in line, she doesn’t mention it. She talks about the weather, inconsequential things. I know she worships the Christian Jesus from the cross she wears around her neck, and I want to ask her if he is kinder than Allah, if I pledge my lot to him, will he heal my heart?

The American has always fascinated me. She came here before I was born and we all knew she would stay, not like the new English teacher who works at the school. That one will leave again as soon as she becomes strong enough to face whatever she is running from. No, the American stayed because she felt at home in her difference. When she met Abduali, we knew they would be forever, even though they have never married. Abduali still goes to the mosque, but those who expected the American to don the hijab were disappointed. I like the American; no one tells her what to do.

The air is heavy and the wait for the healer is long. The wind blows and I taste dirt in my mouth. The flavor is familiar, as much a part of this land as the melons and the bread. I don’t mind the dirt. Every night it seeps into our houses, onto our pillows and rugs, and every morning, we sweep and beat it back out. We know it’s a temporary alliance we have with it. We, like the land, belong to the dust and someday the dust will take us permanently. It is as much a part of us as water is to those who belong to the sea.

I am surrounded by those in wheelchairs, on crutches, with deformities. It is said the healer knows the old magic, from even before the Qur’an. The old gods, people say in whispers, didn’t have so much power, so you could appeal to them for a touch of healing here, a bit of fortune there.

The healer is said to have the gift of communicating with these old gods, of appeasing them, flattering them to trick them out of their magic.

I used to laugh with the young about the old healer and his magic. That was before I knew the pain of heartbreak and felt like I needed him myself.

I wait throughout the day for the healer to see me, but I have patience borne of necessity. When I finally reach the inside of the room, I’m surprised to find that it’s just an ordinary conference room in a hotel. I’d expected something special, to at least have exotic decorations. But it’s just an ordinary room where an ordinary man in a white button down shirt tucked into khaki pants sits at a table and waits for people to approach him. He’s old and tired-looking; he holds a bottle of water from which he takes occasional sips.

“Come closer, girl,” he calls out to me as I stand uncertainly in the doorway.

He studies me as I stand in front of him, moving his head up and down. “What’s wrong with you?” His breath smells stale and I force myself not to lean away from it.

“I’m pregnant.” I’m surprised my voice is steady. It’s the first time I’ve said the words aloud.

He nods and says nothing else for a long moment. “And the father?”

I don’t hang my head, even though everything I’ve been taught tells me I should. “He’s not here.”

He nods again. “I can make the child go away,” he says. “It would be best for all concerned.”

I should nod in agreement. It’s why I came here, after all. But something stops me. I stare at the healer, willing my eyes not to well with tears.

He notices my uncertainty. “You want me to hurt your lover?”

I’ve heard whispers the healer can curse people, make them suffer for some ill they have caused. For a second, I think about asking him to make my lover miserable or maybe, bring him back to me. If the gods can do that, I will be forever in their debt.

I don’t expect the words that come out of my mouth: “I want to keep my child.”

He considers me again. I start to sweat under his scrutiny. Finally, he asks, “What are you willing to give the gods?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that a price would be required. What could the old gods possibly want that I could give? “I’ll worship them,” I say. “I’ll forsake Allah and worship only them.” I shiver at the thought of defying Allah.

He laughs and the sound isn’t so much mocking as it is tired. “Worship isn’t what they ask for, child.”

He pulls a pipe out of his pants pocket and puts it into his mouth, chewing on it thoughtfully. “What you ask isn’t easy to do. It will take all the gods’ power, and even then, Allah may thwart us.”

“But it’s possible?” Until this moment, I’ve had no hope.

“All things are possible,” the healer says. “Not all things will happen.”

“What will the gods require of me to make it happen?”

I wait for the old man to speak. He is still for a long time, so long my legs start screaming for a place to sit down. When he speaks again, it is in a language I’ve never heard before. The syllables roll off his tongue, an ancient incantation that is part animalistic growling, part words that I can almost but not quite understand.

He doesn’t do anything more dramatic than that. There is no shaking of herbs, no shouting, no dancing around. It is simply an old man speaking something that sounds like magic.

When he is finished, he opens his eyes, shakes his head as if coming out of a trance and looks at me. He picks up the phone beside him and says “Don’t feed the lion in the closet.” Then, he turns to me and says, “What the gods require from you, girl, is courage.” He indicates a room for me to go into. “Stay there until an answer comes to you.”

I walk into the room as bewildered as I’d been when I first came in to see the healer. I sit down in one of the chairs and wait, for what, I don’t know.

After about ten minutes, just long enough for me to begin to feel foolish, I think maybe I should have asked the healer to make my child go away. I rise from my chair, ready to tell him I’ve changed my mind when in walks the American.

“Hello, Sarigul.” Her smile is gentle and I have the feeling that she knows about my problem. “Why don’t we take a walk?”

My legs are shaking; I don’t want to walk with the American, but I know that really isn’t what she is asking of me. Most hotel rooms in Kashgar are bugged and I can’t risk either the Chinese military or the local imam finding out about my baby. Not if I want to keep it. The only way to guarantee a conversation is private is to keep moving outside.

“I understand you have a problem,” the American says. It always unnerves me, this way she has of getting right to the point. She may speak nearly flawless Uyghur, but she will never fully understand our culture.

My nod is fearful, but it is obvious that she already knows.

“I think I may have a solution,” she says, “but it’s not going to be easy for you.” She stops and puts her hand on my arm. “You’re not the first woman in town to go through this.”

Suddenly, I remembered Alinor, a girl I’d gone to high school with. The daughter of a prominent member of the Communist Party, she’d gone to University to become a teacher. She moved to Urumqi but used to come home several times a year to see her family. But at some point, that had stopped. I never saw her at community activities and her family never seemed to talk about her. The last time I’d seen her, Alinor had gone off to the side during a wedding and cried. Giddy from dancing, I couldn’t imagine what might be the matter and I tried to pull her onto the floor with me. She laughed, tears still dotting the corners of her eyes, but refused. “I’m not a girl anymore, Sarigul,” she said. “I’m going to have a child myself.”

I was shocked. Not every marriage was arranged in our town, but most still were, and I knew a child meant the likelihood of Alinor’s parents finding her a husband would be next to impossible. She begged me not to tell anyone. Later, Alinor disappeared and I never knew what happened.

“It’s going to take a lot of courage from you, Sarigul,” the American tells me, “so I need you to be sure you want to do this. Absolutely sure.”

I considered. Before the words had come out of my mouth in front of the healer, I hadn’t consciously thought about keeping the child, but now? “I’m sure,” I say.

The American nods as if that’s what she expected me to say. We walk under a grape arbor and she explains what will happen next. She will arrange for me to leave Xinjiang. Once I am in a country like Kazakhstan that doesn’t treat unmarried pregnant women quite as harshly as my culture does, I can apply for asylum in the United States. She says with letters of reference from her and her friends, I stand a good chance of being able to start a new life.

When she finishes, I ask. “What do I need to do?”

“Go home and pack your belongings. We’ll leave in the morning.”

I know nothing about traveling. I’ve never even been to Urumqi. But I trust the American with her foreign ways and strange tongue.




When Wanderline knocks on my door early the next morning, I am wide awake. We walk through the quiet streets where only the occasional bray of a donkey cuts into the silence of the night. We leave Old Town and I realize that it may be the last time I ever see the mud buildings. I want to turn around and run back into the safety of my home, but I remember that my home is no longer safe. I force back tears and follow her.

I am surprised to see the new English teacher, Grace, behind the wheel of the car. She smiles at me in her quiet, afraid way. I haven’t met her beyond a passing “hello” and I look suspiciously at Wanderline, who simply says, “We can trust her.”

I get in the back seat of the car and the two women in the front turn and smile at me. Their smiles are small, in acknowledgement of the big thing we are about to do. Grace’s expression is concerned; it makes me even more frightened than I already am.

“How did you sleep?” Wanderline asks, and by her manner, I can tell she expects me to say that I didn’t sleep at all. But I slept soundly, the sleep of those too exhausted to question their fate.

“I’m ready,” I answer instead, trying to let them know there is no need for small talk. In my hand, I clutch the small bag of treasures I assembled. In addition to my clothes—only enough for a weekend; Wanderline had been clear about that—I carry a picture of my parents, a letter from my lover, Alim, which includes his new address in Kazakhstan, and a diary, blank, in which I hope to record my thoughts for the baby that will come.

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” Grace says, with a jarring giggle.

Wanderline glares at her and says, “If Sarigul is ready, then so are you.” Her tone is sharp.

Grace nods. “I’m sorry, Sarigul.” The way she says “I’m sorry,” I can tell she genuinely is, but she adds, “I’ve never done anything illegal before.” This comes with a pointed look at Wanderline.

“Then it’s high time you started,” Wanderline retorts.

I keep quiet. I know they are risking a great deal for me, though I’m not sure what could happen to them. Having American citizenship seems to insulate them from the worst of what could go wrong. I know they could be thrown out of the country and for Wanderline that would mean losing the life she’d built for twenty years. I don’t know if they could be thrown into prison like me. I think about asking, but then imagine the frightened look on Grace’s face, and I keep quiet.

The two women continue to argue quietly in English. I understand words like dangerous and crazy, but their conversation soon becomes too much for me to try and follow. I watch outside the window as the world I’ve always known passes away. In less than half an hour, we are further than I’ve ever been outside of Kashgar. I think of Alim, wonder if he went this way when he left. The idea gives me some comfort.

As the landscape becomes more and more unfamiliar, Wanderline keeps pointing out places of interest to me: here is the road to the Taklamakan Desert; there is the glass factory where so many people in Kashgar travel to work. I try to take it all in, knowing I might never come home again, but my mind is so full it’s numb. Grace is mostly silent, her body stony and impossibly straight as she drives. I can see that her fingers are gripping the steering wheel so tightly they’re white.

The further we get away from Kashgar, the more unreal everything seems to me. Wanderline keeps up a steady flow of chatter about nothing, and after awhile, Grace and I join in, commenting on the cuteness of a goat that was grazing by the side of the road or the interesting blue of a house. Wanderline translates everything for us, and before too long, we are all laughing and having a good time, as if we were simply out on a day trip. None of us mention the real reason we are in the car, what we are driving toward.

We stop at an overlook for lunch, Grace passing out pieces of baked chicken meat encased in bread that she calls “sandwiches.” They taste good, but I don’t have much of an appetite. I thank Grace for the food, but when she suggests I throw what I don’t want away, I’m glad.

When we get back in the car, I can’t keep quiet about the reason for our trip any longer. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you for risking your lives for me.”

Both Wanderline and Grace smile, tell me “You’re welcome,” but I notice Grace tense up again. When Wanderline thinks I’m not looking, she puts a hand on Grace’s arm. The two of them exchange a look and Grace nods and takes a deep breath.

Once, when we stop at the side of the road to use the bathroom behind some bushes, I come back to overhear the two women talking. I can’t follow everything they say, but I hear Grace point out, “We could go to prison” and Wanderline tell her she’s done this many times without any problem. When I walk up, both women smile at me, but the smiles are strained.

We are back in the car and a few miles down the road before I have the courage to say quietly, “We don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, we do,” Wanderline’s tone is definite.

“We do, Sarigul,” Grace adds. “I’m sorry if you overheard what I said back there. I’m just scared.”

“Your fear is nothing like Sarigul’s,” Wanderline says.

“Neither is my courage,” Grace says in Uyghur, smiling at me through the rearview mirror.

I think about what the healer told me about the old gods and I force myself to smile back.

As the sun is getting low, we finally arrive at the border. I get ready to pull out my papers, but Wanderline shakes her head. “Don’t say anything unless you’re spoken to. You’re crossing the border to visit relatives in Almaty.”

A Chinese guard motions us forward. He peers into the car and Wanderline hands over our papers. She tells him in halting Chinese that we are on our way to a wedding in Almaty. He asks how long we’ll be gone and she tells him a couple of days, at the most. My heart is beating so hard I start to count its beats in my head to stay calm. The man leans his head into the car, watching me, and I push a smile onto my face.

It seems like hours before he waves us on. Wanderline doesn’t say anything until we get out of sight of the guard tower, but then she turns back to me, “One down; one to go.” I nod my head. I’d forgotten about having to go through the Kazakhstani border. I begin counting in my head: one, two, three. Time moves so very slowly when you’re afraid.

The second guard looks in our car in the same aggressive way the first did. This time, Grace speaks. I can tell by the way she pauses between words that her Russian isn’t strong, but her voice doesn’t falter the way I expected it to. I understand the word Almaty. She hands over our papers.

The guard reads them for a long time. He keeps staring at me and I smile again, hoping it’s the right response. I feel an almost overwhelming urge to cry and so I try to think about all the words I know in English. I am Sarigul is the only thing that comes to mind. When the man finally speaks again, Grace’s answer is still firm, steady. The man frowns, but Grace says something else and he seems to give in. He hands back the papers and waves us through, a look of disgust on his face.

“What did you tell him?” Wanderline asks her.

“I just said that I was on my period and if he kept us any longer he was going to have to find someplace for me to go to the bathroom,” she says in halting Uyghur. Wanderline and I exchange a glance, shocked, and then we all burst out laughing.

“We actually got through the border,” Grace says in disbelief.

“I told you we could do it,” Wanderline says, although she, too, looks relieved.




We drive mostly in silence through streets carrying more traffic than I’ve ever seen before to a house with a purple door. Wanderline goes up to the door and while I try to take in every detail of the woman who answered, all I perceive is her round face and gentle expression. She follows Wanderline out to the car and speaks to Grace in English, words I can’t take in but can tell are of welcome. When she turns to me, she speaks in Uyghur, telling me her name is Rebiya. She takes the hand that I offer in both of hers and smiles at me the way I remember my mother smiling.

Through dinner and the small talk that follow it, I am aware of everyone trying not to watch me, to give me some space to take it all in. All I want, though, is some time alone to think about everything that is happening. When they place me and my meager belongings in a bedroom alone and close the door, I fall on the bed with relief. I thought I would cry, but I find myself too tired even for tears. I pull out the letter Alim had written and I hold it to my face, pretending I can feel him, smell his scent. I look at the Almaty address, imagine him thinking of me as he writes the characters and I wonder how far away I am from him.

Rebiya comes in and offers me fresh towels. She sits down on the bed with me. “Do you have anyone you’d like us to contact, Sarigul?” When I look at her quizzically, she explains, “Most women who come here the way you did have a lover with the Resistance.”

I don’t know what to say to her. Alim had left Kashgar, telling me he loved me but could no longer stay in a town where the Chinese were taking more and more of our freedoms away.  He doesn’t know about the baby. I hand Rebiya the envelope with his address on it.




Grace and Wanderline leave the next day. Grace hugs me and wishes me well, but I can tell that she is glad to be leaving, going back to the relative safety of China. Wanderline’s hug is longer and she tells me to contact her if I need anything. I know she means it.

Once they are gone, Rebiya takes me to the American Embassy to apply for asylum. The man who speaks to me is nice—he even offers a few words in Uyghur—and he tells me that I have a good chance of being admitted to his country.

United States. It is what China dreams of but can never achieve as long as our states desire to be free. Rebiya says that many of the Resistance members will make their way to the America, where people are allowed to fight for freedom, tell others what they know. But I wonder if Alim will ever be willing to leave the region of his homeland. I hope for a life with him; plan for a life without him.

The days settle into a quiet routine of helping Rebiya and waiting for news. One afternoon, there is a knock at the door. Rebiya calls for me to answer it. I’m wiping my hands on an apron when I open the door to find Alim standing there, his hat in his hands. I don’t know whether I want to jump in his arms or slam the door in his face, so I wait.

“A baby.” he says quietly, as if he had been mulling over those words ever since he got my letter. I can’t read his expression.

“A baby,” I keep my voice neutral.

He swoops me into his arms, swinging me around in the doorframe.  “A baby! A baby who will be born free.”

“It won’t be easy,” I caution when he puts me down, remembering what the healer told me. But I’m suppressing a smile.

“No.” His face is serious again. “We may have to go to America. The process can be long.”

I tell him I’ve already applied and his face lights up.

He says, “I thought you would never be willing to leave Kashgar.” He searches my eyes.

I finally let myself smile at him. “That was before the baby.”

He nods. “A baby changes everything.”

“Not everything,” I say, taking his hand and looking up at him. “We loved each other before; we love each other now.”

Alim takes my face in his hands and kisses my forehead. “That we do.”

We don’t know what will happen next, whether we will face life in Kazakhstan or in America, but we know we will face it together. The old gods have willed it to be so.






Elizabeth Burton lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two willful dogs, where she works for a nonprofit organization. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin (English) and Stony Brook University (Linguistics) and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction from Spalding University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kentucky Review and The Roanoke Review, among others.