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Her Disturbing Presence, Part One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her Disturbing Presence, Part 1

 

by Shana Marie

 

 

Copyright 2017 Shana Marie

 

Cover art by Aimee Simes

 

Cover Design by Nieves Uhl

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Introduction

The Families

Chapter One: Almah

Chapter Two: Heka

Chapter Three: Heka

Chapter Four: Hina

Chapter Five: Heka

Chapter Six: Hina

Chapter Seven: Heka

Chapter Eight: Lada

Chapter Nine: Pyrq

Chapter Ten: Heka

Chapter Eleven: Ahur

Chapter Twelve: Heka

Chapter Thirteen: Hina

Chapter Fourteen: Pyrq

Chapter Fifteen: Heka

Chapter Sixteen: Nansh

Chapter Seventeen: Gedda

Chapter Eighteen: Pyrq

Chapter Nineteen: Pyrq

Chapter Twenty: Pyrq

Acknowledgments

About Shana Marie

Connect with Shana Marie

Introduction

 

I began this project in 2014. During the time I researched and wrote this book my eyes were becoming open to and my imagination was being flooded with what humans are truly capable of and how much we limit ourselves in our present state. The political events that have transpired of late have made it evident that this very time in our history – perhaps more than ever – needs the ideas this book hopes to reintroduce. We stand on a precipice. It is not a new one. It is one half the world’s population has been standing on, falling from, and coming back to for thousands of years.

This story on the proceeding pages takes place at a time when that precipice was being created. Before dominator cultures became the norm, many human cultures celebrated and revered women above all. It was a time when women led partnership societies – some of the most artistically prolific, peaceful, and innovative cultures the world has ever seen.

Though not all archaeologists and anthropologists agree about the way in which these partnerships societies were eventually infiltrated and quashed by dominator types, it is generally agreed upon that the usurpers came to Europe from the East. I argue that geography is mostly arbitrary where this is concerned. Certainly, there have always been cultures around the globe that centered on dominant males; I certainly do not believe that eastern peoples are evil and responsible for all the ills of the world. But eastern peoples seem to have been the first to mount horses, and with this new mode of transportation their roles as dominators were sealed. The domestication of horses coupled with the onset of agrarian dependence (which had already emerged in Europe) made protection, defense, and eventually militaries necessary. Land that had once been looked at and worshiped as being the very body of a goddess mother was now a valuable thing to be owned, cultivated, and in many cases exhausted. (Some might say the earth was raped, and the raping continues. Indeed, the earth is also being suffocated with asphalt and concrete.) With the introduction of farming, humans experienced a population explosion, so resources began to be intensely coveted. The combination of all these factors obviously makes for a quite insecure environment, one in which one’s property must be protected.

All these things transpired just as agriculture was getting off the ground and we were entering the time Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen term “the point of no turning back.” As humans began to view the earth as a thing to be dominated and exploited, so did they begin to look at their fellow humans (especially women) in the same light. Defensive structures and attitudes then became necessary. And religions that celebrated the cyclical nature of life (which is undeniably reflected in and by the female body) became things of the past, and were replaced by mountain and thunder gods who could not be seen or touched, but were punishing, unforgiving, and male. The gods favored men who were destructive and victorious.

The book that follows this introduction takes place at a time and in a place where agriculture is taking a foothold, but horseback riding has not yet been introduced. The setting is around 5,000 B.C.E in Central Eastern Europe. I did a fair amount of research and learning before I began to write the story of Gedda, Heka, Hina, and Pyrq, whom you will soon meet; but I have taken several liberties with elements that are debated within the fields of archaeology and anthropology among academics and experts. For, the people of the past still hold many unsolved mysteries; we do not yet, and may never, know why they did some of the things they did or how they did them. It was enjoyable for me, a writer of fiction, to imagine the world in which my characters lived more than 7,000 years ago. I incorporated as many as I could of the incontrovertible facts the detectives of academia have uncovered, but embellished and imagined where it was necessary, since much is still unknown.

To be sure, the proper nouns and some of the “invented” vocabulary you will read in this book were carefully chosen to reclaim them from the bastardization they have suffered for more than a millennium. I encourage you to research the origins of names that you hear or read in patriarchal religious texts and philosophy. You will find that almost every example was at one time a positive notion, but because patriarchal strategists sought to dominate and colonize, a story was invented to attempt to negate a term’s original meaning. So, many things modern folk are taught to fear and be ashamed of were actually once celebrated as life-giving and honorable. (The overwhelming majority of things patriarchs demonize were once things that gave women influence – like nature, blood, and sex.)

At times in this work, a reader will notice that the point of view changes back and forth within just one chapter of the story. This illustrates how some characters are connected on a spiritual level, so much so that one cannot often discern definitively where one character starts and another begins, what one character experiences versus what another experiences. This is because they are experiencing some events together, not just side-by-side but as if they are one.

This shift in point of view also illustrates, especially in the case of the three generational representatives Gedda, Heka, and Hina, the onus of decision-making. For, in their culture, there is no such thing as power, which only exists in a dominator society. Theirs is a partnership society, so there is decision-making, not governing. In fact, Heka and Hina become important partners to each other and to Gedda, not threats to one another’s influence. Instead of having competitors, Gedda now has allies who assuage the burden of leadership.

Finally, a note on time: the characters in this story – particularly the Mattas, who are goddess worshippers – do not understand time as we do today. They have no words for tomorrow, tonight, yesterday, or next year. To the Mattas there are only suns and moons, all operating in tandem with the cycles of their own female bodies. The concept of history has not yet been invented.

And the story itself is not linear. The idea of a timeline is a patriarchal one, and it has no place here. The story moves forward, things happen to characters and there are resulting feelings and actions, but the story is not always a simplistic straight line between numbers of occurrences, as you will see.

My work is mostly unedited and is intended to be raw and unadulterated by normal publishing avenues. I am fortunate enough to be living in a time in which artists and other creatives have access to any number of venues for their work; and it is unnecessary to go through the “traditional”, or hierarchical, obstacle course to being read (or heard, or seen, or felt). Furthermore, to put a price tag on my work would only be to discredit what it seeks to represent, which is a world in which artistic expression, above all other human capability, is the single most important action. Artists should be able to create without being fettered by vulgarities such as monetary value or salability. But, at the same time, it is artists – not politicians and billionaires – who should be lifted up and looked to for wisdom. For, oftentimes, people concerned only with the accumulation of money and wealth are the least creative people; and creative people generally have more sight, while their exploiters have less sight.

It would appear, then, that since the dawn of agriculture, which led to a concentration of power and influence being with the person who could accumulate the most things (and later, money) by whatever means, the natural order has been inverted and become anything but natural. So, we’ve had it all wrong for thousands of years. What do we do now?

We learn. When we spend our time learning – which is the act of attempting to understand – we grow. It is essential in this era wherein patriarchy and miseducation are anachronistically exalted that we turn all our attention to learning and understanding, and away from isolating and dividing ourselves. And we must love and embrace those who mistrust the learned, for only our guidance and our understanding will bring them around to accepting knowledge and truth.

 

 

-Shana Marie, December 2016

Chapter One: Almah

In the mornings the men of the Village of the Bael stayed away from the riverbank, for it was reserved for women who wished to bathe. Almah’s mother had always preferred to bathe in the light of the dawn, before many other women arrived. When Almah once asked her mother why she chose this time of day, Febeq had replied, “It’s best not to congregate.”

The two of them always bathed together, and their ablutions had become almost ceremonial, with Febeq washing her daughter’s hair, then Almah returning the favor. Today they had, as they had always done, brought their morning vittles down to the bank where they ate while their hair dried. It was peaceful, and even the plashing sounds of two other solitary women, one bathing upstream and one bathing downstream from them, pleased them. Finally, they gathered their things and headed back to their home where they would spend the rest of the sunlit hours in their pottery workshop making vessels.

They passed two women and a girl a little older than Almah on their way up the sloping bank. “Good morning, Febeq,” the two women chirped.

Febeq smiled and nodded her head to the women. She and Almah walked on.

The next morning, while her mother still slept, Almah stole out of the house with her two water vessels. The sun was just appearing, and it cast a purple-yellow hue over the world. Almah looked forward to these solitary moments which were normally virtually silent but for the sound of the river flowing away to Almah knew not where and the peeping of little birds overhead in the trees. Occasionally, one would swoop down toward the water and skim its little feet on the surface of the river, or bathe itself in a nearby puddle.

But this morning Almah’s reverie was invaded. She frowned; the closer Almah came to the riverbank the louder the voices became. A gaggle of girls and women chatted excitedly, bathing and primping in the river. Why were they here so early? And why in such numbers?

She thought back to her mother’s words: “It’s best not to congregate.” Seeing this group here alarmed Almah. She felt these women were being foolhardy, though she couldn’t think of one consequence for their recklessness.

Nevertheless, returning home without the day’s drinking water supply was not an option, so before the women and girls could detect her presence, Almah filled her vessels and lugged them up the bank homeward as quickly as she could.

Febeq was preparing their morning meal over the hearth. The quiet of their house was an immeasurable consolation to poor Almah, and she could not hide her relief when she entered and set her water vessels on the table near the hearth. It was, to Febeq, as if Almah had just shed an immense weight as she came through the door.

“Child, whatever is the matter?”

“Akka, there are many women and girls in the river this morning! So early! So many!”

The expression on Febeq’s face went from one of curious concern to unknowable stone. She went back to her work wordlessly.

“Akka, you know why there is such a fuss at the river. Tell me,” Almah implored.

Febeq did not look at her daughter. “There will be a ceremony today. You and I are not expected nor required to attend. Do not concern yourself with it. No more questions now, child. Eat. Then we must work – like any other day.”

Almah did as she was told. She was less curious about the ceremony than relieved she did not have to participate, for it would appear the whole affair would be a well-attended spectacle, and there was nothing to put Almah more ill at ease than a crowd of people.

Though their house was the furthest of all their neighbors’ from the village center, they could hear the hullabaloo all day long. Still, Almah and Febeq worked until midday, refreshed themselves with food and water, then went back to work until the sun began to descend and light became scarce in the workroom.

The daily activity at the riverbank changed after that. Women in groups, even the young ones, were very scarce. The village had shrouded itself in a hush that felt eerie to Almah. Even Febeq, who always seemed so sure, showed signs of being somewhat uneasy.

The two of them were bathing one morning as they had done so many times when they heard a male voice upstream. It was such a foreign sound to hear this time of day in this place that Febeq’s wide eyes met Almah’s in a rare moment of spontaneity during which, without thinking, the women covered their breasts. In a second, Febeq was grabbing her daughter’s arm and pulling her to the bank.

“Why are you here together?” the male voice was saying as Febeq threw her tunic onto her own body and began to help Almah with hers. Almah pointed to her mother’s belt, which lay in the mud now; she reached downward to retrieve it but Febeq pushed her away. Febeq was beset with removing them from this place at this moment.

They heard a female voice answer the male’s voice, and when they glanced behind them to see who was speaking they saw two women in the river, their arms crossed over their chests, and a young girl standing naked on the river bank trying to cover as much of herself as she could. The man – one of the Bael’s men – stood authoritatively over the girl, who shivered with fear as well as the cool of the morning air on her exposed skin.

“Get back to your houses,” the man said, and he turned to patrol the rest of the bank.

Febeq pushed Almah onward saying, “Go,” discouraging her daughter from looking back.

They reached the house in a breathless panic, and they finished their bathing using the water in the large, clay rain barrel outside the workroom. They had always reserved this water for their pottery-making, but today it would wash the mud off their feet and hands.

Finally, they sat at the table by the hearth with their hands wrapped around cups of piping brew they made from a mixture Ahur had brought to them from the West. Almah felt safer inside their house than she ever remembered, and even Febeq seemed comforted, though her stony face still wore the remnants of panic.

“We must not go to the river together again,” Febeq said.

Almah was too distressed to ask, “Why?” So she sipped her brew in order to keep her voice silent.

The feeling of safety was not to last. For later that day, as Febeq and Almah were busy in their workroom, two of the Bael’s men entered without warning and without apology. They looked around them, looked in every corner of the house. They looked at Febeq, sitting with clay-caked hands and looking back at them with indignant disdain in spite of her shock over their invasion, then left.

Almah thought that the bigger of the two men had looked at Febeq with some recognition, and she at him. The acknowledgement had satisfied the man, and then he was inclined to away with his comrade. Almah and Febeq trailed them out of the house and stood framed in the doorway watching the shorter of the two men splash a mark of red ochre on the outer wall to the side of the entryway. The two men turned again and were out of sight in another instant.

Febeq and Almah exchanged sparse words for the rest of the day. They washed their hands in the rain barrel and prepared and ate their evening meal in near silence. Still, they clung to one another’s company, for the world outside their door felt uncertain and dangerous. But it seemed to Almah that The Village of the Bael had always been dangerous for Febeq, for she found herself in the precarious position of being a relation to the Bael. In fact, they shared a father, though that was not significant since the Old Bael had taken a number of wives and concubines. But, though the young Bael was Febeq’s brother, their mothers had been rivals. The Bael’s mother, Feronq, had been fiercely protective of her proximity to the Old Bael and all his powers, and she had worked hard to get her son a special spot in the Old Bael’s heart.

“For one harvest season my mother was the Old Bael’s favorite,” Febeq had told Almah and her brother, Pyrq. “And I was born before the next harvest arrived. But, by then, the Old Bael had wedded Feronq, who was from the East, and she bore him several children. He continued to pluck young women from the village to join his family, and he married some of them, but several of them returned to their parents shamed and broken. My mother was one of those. But she was skilled in making vessels, and thusly she was able to partly redeem her status, for her vessels were sturdy, and she was quick to keep the supply high. Because of their pottery her family maintained a special relationship with the trader families, and your father’s family was willing to make a match for me because I could make vessels they would otherwise have to trade for. I brought great value to your father’s family.

“Feronq gave birth to several children, and therefore held a place of high honor to the Old Bael. Most of her children lived, too, though her daughters were sent back east to marry men of the Old Bael’s original tribe. Feronq convinced the Old Bael that their only son was a gift from their mountain god, and that the child was blessed, and destined to succeed the Old Bael. His line would continue.”

Almah and her brother Pyrq had heard this story countless times throughout their lives. Almah wondered why her mother repeated it so often. The details of it lingered in Almah’s mind almost constantly of late. She was of marrying age now, though her mother and father had made no mention of finding a match for her, even as the other girls of the village – some even younger than Almah – had already become betrothed. Almah was thankful. She enjoyed being with her mother in their workroom, which was quiet and familiar. Her favorite times were when her father, Pyrq, and her Uncle Zakar were at home. This was the longest she had ever spent without seeing her younger brother, and it was a very strange feeling to not have him underfoot.

Almah was not anxious for anything to change, but it seemed lately as if change were inevitable. Pyrq had gone west to learn their father’s profession, and even the village itself seemed to be changing. Febeq and Almah had always kept their distance from the village and its denizens, but now it seemed to be on their doorstep, refusing to be ignored. The Bael had become a sinister figure; even though Almah rarely caught a glimpse of the man, his name and his men evoked fear.

Almah remembered the first time she saw the Bael. It was at his wedding ceremony. All the village’s people were in attendance, for they were all fascinated by the woman who had come from the East to marry the son of their great leader. They were disappointed; for the woman stayed shrouded in a red cloth for the length of the ceremony. Almah, tugging on her mother’s robe, asked, “Akka, why can’t we see the woman? Why is she hidden?”

Febeq replied, “She is not ours to see. She is the woman of the son of the Bael.”

Almah remembered the funeral of the shrouded woman much better than she remembered the wedding, for Almah had been but a young child at the wedding. While her funeral wasn’t as elaborate as that of the Old Bael, the shrouded woman’s procession was lengthy and colorful, and it was said that she would be buried with the child she had died giving birth to beside her, nestled in a swan’s wing. But her body would be laid to rest in the ground without the benefit of the multitude of beads, weapons, and gold the Old Bael’s body had been showered with. A man who stood over her body as it was lowered into the ground instructed her spirit to find the Old Bael when she arrived at the place beyond this place, where the mountain god resided, and the Old Bael would protect her in the afterlife.

 

 

Almah continued to go to the river by herself to bring home their daily drinking water. The river bank was dotted with a few women, but now none of them spoke to each other and they kept their distance from one another. Once, as Almah squatted filling up her vessels, a man strode along the river’s bank. The bathing women shamefully bent their knees to submerge their nakedness under the water until he had passed. He paused to lock eyes with Almah. She was determined to stare back at him, though she was fearful. Eventually, he walked on casually and with an air of savored authority.

Almah feared her father and brother would finally return from their routes to find a terribly altered household. Instead of a contented pair of worker bees they would find a cowering, fearful girl and her resentful, bitter mother. The two of them were keenly aware that this no longer felt like their home. They felt watched, scrutinized, and imprisoned when they found the red mark on the house had been refreshed. Febeq began to more frequently snap at her daughter, and even demure Almah would occasionally snap back, then wonder what kind of daughter she was becoming. She didn’t like herself, and Febeq’s constant apologizing told Almah her mother was inwardly tortured in the same way. They had their misery in common, which smoothed them together like the clay Almah worked with her thumb to attach a handle to a pitcher. She would rub the clay with her thumb, always in the same direction, until the places where the handle met the pitcher were seamless; her relationship with her mother was like this. One day in their workroom, when she had attached her handles to Febeq’s pitchers several times in a row, Almah stood and went to her mother and kissed her forehead. Febeq took her daughter’s hand and pressed it to her cheek with deep affection. The wet clay on Almah’s hand left a trace on Febeq’s cheek, which reminded Almah she was no longer afforded the pleasure of bathing with her mother at the river. Almah had been deprived, which made her angry – and she had never known anger before.

Almah anxiously awaited her father’s advent. How long would he be gone? There was never any knowing, but until he returned she and her mother were benighted. From their windows they could see the scarcity of women in the village. Only the men walked past or congregated. Yes, the men seemed freer than ever, and the women more invisible than ever. Almah was beginning to regret that her mother had kept them home from the ceremony, for it was after that event that the world had changed.

One day Almah and Febeq huddled clutching each other as they heard a female voice screaming in the house nearest their own. “Is this how my husband will find me when he returns? Cowering in a corner with our daughter?” Febeq muttered. And they heard footsteps outside their door and the whipping of a kind of slashing motion. The red ochre on the wall by the door would have been renewed now.

 

Chapter Two: Heka

Heka perched outside her front door as the sun descended. She had spent this sun spinning plant silks, and as she did so her imagination had been very active. She had enjoyed her reverie very much, especially as her daughters and her son worked beside her, occasionally chattering but mostly quiet and reflective. They were deep inside their minds’ worlds on days like these when their hands were occupied. Tomorrow, Bara would want to spend all day with Tait in the modir, and Hina and Ista would want to make dyes from the flowers they would collect from the forest. They would use these dyes to color the fibers they had spun.

But now the three of them were snuggled in their sleeping skins, probably already dreaming. And Heka was here, outside her door, listening to the sounds of the dying sun and watching the last of her neighbors’ chores being done before the neighbors, too, tucked themselves in.

Some traders passed her house, dragging their cart with heavy, tired feet. These particular traders wore friendly smiles, a gesture Heka did not receive from all men of that profession. Some had come to begrudge her, for she was suspicious of them, and she did not often do business with them; what is more, she had influence over some of the other wermadn of the village, which threatened the traders’ business. Occasionally, Heka would trade them some of the brew she made from special plants she could collect but once a year, only because her product would be of assistance to some needy wermadn far away. But she had no use for the traders’ purple cloth from some southern island, nor their horse skins or black glass.

At one time there had been an expansive courtyard across which Heka could look from this vantage point and see all her other neighbors, their houses fanning out before her. But with an influx of foreigners and so many healthy, well-fed babies over the years, the courtyard had filled up with new houses until a kind of confusing labyrinth had been created. Sometimes buildings had been added onto until they touched the buildings beside them, but when the new buildings did not touch their neighbors’, slim alleyways were created.

When Heka was a young girl she had known everyone who lived in Mens. Now, there were many families she could not name one member of, and she was separated from some of her childhood friends by the chaotic constructions that had filled the space that was once the large courtyard. She would have to walk through the labyrinthine alleys to get to the other side of the village, or take the wider, longer road which was now usually congested with traders’ carts and kiosks. It was unpleasant.

She sat here in the waning light thinking about what was on the other side of the eyesore courtyard village that had come as close as it could to her house’s front entrance. Only the wide road lay between them. She narrowed her eyes, trying to imagine the other side of the village.

Hebe was over there. These traders who lugged by Heka’s house almost daily were sometimes coming from doing business with Hebe, who, like Heka, still lived in the house that had been her Matta’s, though Hebe’s Matta, Aki, had died long ago.

In their childhood Heka and Hebe had been like sisters because their Mattas, Gedda and Aki, had been like sisters. As young wermadn Matta Aki and Matta Gedda had traveled together to learn healing and prophecy from Ma’s Eye at Yahi; that was long ago, before the mountain and thunder gods had come to the East.

Her mind’s eyes still boring through the village, Heka imagined through the chaos to Hebe’s house, its simple entrance and rooms beyond. Through the two rooms of the house and out the back entrance of the hearth room was a patch of earth in which Heka and Hebe had played together almost every sun as children. As the girls grew older Heka spent more and more time learning what she could from the Mattas while Hebe withdrew. Heka learned how to spin wool, how to harvest plants from the forest, how to make clay that would become pottery, and how to worship the world around them, Ma.

Hebe looked only to that patch of earth for fulfillment and occupation. She spent hours and hours there, cultivating plants and examining seeds in spite of her Matta’s disapproving glances. She grew disinterested in practically everything else around her, and her relationship with the traders from the East became her Matta Aki’s greatest worry. The traders would bring seeds and knowledge to Hebe, and upon their departure Hebe would become engrossed in making earthly homes for her handful of seeds.

How Heka now regretted abandoning that patch of earth to Hebe! Heka’s heart and interests pulled her closer and closer to Matta Aki and her own Matta, but left Hebe behind in the soil. Eventually, Hebe rebuffed all of Heka’s attempts to commune with her. Nothing could separate the young wermad from her little rows of seedlings peeping up from the hand-plowed ground, even as Heka cringed to see a digging tool, made from a piece of broken pottery, plunged into earth.

The garden had started in the soil that bordered the back wall of Aki’s house. Some herbs and vines grew there, and Aki used some of them for the brews she and Matta Gedda made for all the wermadn of the village. But Hebe eventually eradicated those plants, even as Matta Aki grew weak and sick. Hebe threw herself into growing seeds and harvesting grains, and by the time Matta Aki died Hebe had engineered a cereal plant whose bounty was predictable and abundant. Ten moons after Matta Aki died, and Heka and Matta Gedda came to retrieve Hebe for her Matta’s second burial, Hebe had expanded her garden by felling some of the trees beyond her Matta’s house, and had begun to deal her seeds and meal to traders.

That day at Hebe’s door, so long ago now, Matta Gedda’s face had become like a young storm just beginning to gain traction. “Hebe, child, your Matta will have her second burial today. These wermadn are going to the forest to retrieve her bones. Will you not come with these wermadn? And will you not bury your Matta under the floor of her house?”

This was a day all the wermadn of Mens had looked forward to, for the agony of losing Matta Aki was extraordinary. After enduring the passing of ten new moons their hearts were prepared to celebrate Aki’s life with a second funeral. Her bones, now cleaned by grateful birds and bleached to pure white by the sun, would be honored by being lain to rest under the house she had occupied. All the wermadn had looked forward to it.

Now, Matta Gedda and Hebe stood face-to-face, and in this moment it was clear to Heka that connections were being severed, angularity forming from what had once been round.

“I have work to do, Matta,” Hebe had said.

Even now, peering into her memory that had travelled among the bewildering buildings, down the winding paths, through the same entrance of Hebe’s house and to the piece of earth at the rear, Heka could not say what caused Hebe to reject her Matta’s way of living, her spirit, her mission of healing.

In a state of irreparable dejection, Matta Gedda eventually left the village. Now, having lost Gedda and Aki, Mens’s wermadn were left without a Healer, though eventually those responsibilities would fall to young Pana, who spent most of her time communing with plants in the forest, consulting them for answers as her Nanna Panlat, whose knowledge was legendary, had done. Panlat’s daughters, Nansh and Mabal, now worked hard to remember their Matta’s practices, and to teach Pana all they knew.

Heka slowly returned from these memories to find herself sitting in the darkness of the torpid village. The children slept soundly, and the house was virtually silent when Heka crept back in. She knelt down on her sleeping bench, a plaster construction built out of the wall itself, and reached up to a shelf above the bench and retrieved a beautiful pure white skull. She blessed it and prayed to Ma, thanking Her for the time she allowed Aki to walk among the wermadn spreading her knowledge, her love, and her feminine power, which had always been a source of strength for Heka and for Matta Gedda, and for all the wermadn. Except perhaps for Aki’s own daughter.

Finally, Heka lay down on her bench. Aki’s bones lay under the floor of the bed, her skull rested above on the shelf. She felt close to Aki, and her memories of the wermad were kept sharp, her clean, bleached bones being so near.

“Hebe is lost. We will take Matta Aki’s bones to my house and I will sleep on them,” was what Matta Gedda had said turning away with almost abject sadness from Hebe’s door all those moons ago. That was long ago, when Gedda was Heka’s age now. It was before Matta Gedda had heard a calling from the forest, and would remove herself from her house and her people.

Heka closed her eyes and knew that Aki would likely visit her in her dreams this moon. Aki’s presence was too much in this house, her spirit too much in Heka’s mind and heart to keep away. She would bring the comfort to Heka tonight that Matta Gedda would not. Heka pulled the sleeping skins up around her shoulders and welcomed sleep.

 

Chapter Three: Heka

Heka was the first to spy them. She was sitting outside her house sharing a brew with Nansh, when the visitors came out of the eastern tree line of the village. They were three men, very colorfully dressed. The colors of their robes and tunics were almost like the blue blooms that spread throughout the forest during the rainy period, but deeper, and Heka knew not how that color dye could be made.

The past had floated forward in Heka’s mind of late. As these traders came over the horizon memories of leisurely talks with Nansh and the other wermadn appeared before her eyes and hovered there like ghosts that refused to be ignored or forgotten. In the past, the wermadn would congregate in random happy pairs and trios like an invisible spider’s web all over the village. They were free from care in those days; all things in life were little joys they shared. A few of them even took hunting trips with Ixi and the other men back then. Now more men were occupied with breeding goats and gardening, and no one hunted anymore. Hardly anyone ever even journeyed from the village anymore.

And now a certain excitement overtook the village when traders arrived because the traders would bring exotic news and goods. The traders Heka now saw entering the village in a purple procession were not strangers. They had been here regularly since the last warm period.

Their ruddy faces wore smiles that unsettled Heka as they passed her house. When they were past she locked eyes with Nansh.

Nansh said in her smooth, deep voice, “They are only interested in trading with the Bahartr. They don’t talk to wermadn.”

Heka bobbed her head forward a little in agreement, her eyes now training on the visitors.

On the path ahead the traders stopped young Ista and Azul; Heka and Nansh looked on, curious and anxious. One of the foreigners reached inside the cart’s tent, a cloth lain over the goods to be traded. The man fished around inside blindly until his hand found what he sought. He produced some little trinket and, though the wermadn could not discern his words, cooed at the boys, explaining to them the allure of the thing. The boys craned their necks over the man’s hand, looking at the object. But they quickly lost any interest and bounced on down the path toward Heka’s house. Heka exchanged another glance with Nansh. They sipped their piping brews silently as the impotent salesmen slithered off in disappointment and the boys skipped playfully by them laughing.

The trader and his comrades wouldn’t feel disappointed for long. There were plenty of villagers who looked forward to being wooed. These fell in behind the traders to the center of the village, a spot inside that chaotic, rambling courtyard, where the traders would set up a kind of market. They skillfully displayed beautiful vessels from faraway islands, dyed cloth the traders claimed faraway rulers wore, and black rock that, according to the traders, could only be found at the foot of exploding mountains.

Nansh and Heka looked on with fascinated horror. Wermadn huddled around the traders’ cloth inventory, pulling the fabric up to their eyes in skeptical admiration. Nansh made a quick indication with her head for Heka to observe Niav. Niav’s nimble fingers danced over the cloth with ease and expertise. Her Matta’s lover had been a master weaver, and he had passed his gift and skill onto his only daughter. But Niav had become a busy person with many children and a lover of her own she took care of instead of nurturing her inherited talents. Nansh winced that such a gift had been squandered on a wermad who now reduced herself to haggling over strangers’ work at a hawker’s booth when her own Matta’s Bahartr had produced cloth richer and more artistic than any trader could have imagined. Sharing a fiber of thoughts Nansh and Heka glanced into the inside of the house to see their own loom, which now proudly displayed the cloth they had begun several moons ago with their own daughters. It was not a garish purple like the traders’ garb, but a quiet green from the dye of one of Pana’s favorite plants.

Eventually the sun began to descend and the bustle from the village’s epicenter dispersed and faded. A settling radiated from the little marketplace the visiting traders had formed, for the last of the traders were now packing up their wares and were heading out of the town’s borders to camp for the night. In the morning they would lug their packs and carts by Heka’s house again. They would walk by her house with their chests puffed up by the hope that today’s trading would be even better than yesterday’s.

After their evening repast Nansh and Heka took their places at the entry to the house once more. They drank a brew together and enjoyed the relaxing breath the village now seemed to be taking from its overstimulating day. The wermadn were like two she-wolves waiting in the shadows, watching men perform their curious customs. The she-wolves tilted their heads with a lack of understanding, and they bared their teeth with disapproval. But it was inevitable: they would eventually shake their thick, glorious blue-grey manes and turn back in the direction of their dark, cavernous homes leaving the inexplicable ways of men behind them. And as they turned they might look back over their sinewy, powerful shoulders to capture a memory; for men would perhaps encroach upon their dark abodes and all that would save the world of the wolves was their observations and their knowledge of men’s fecklessness.

Nansh drained her bowl of brew and returned the empty vessel to Heka’s hearth. She came back to the entryway with a lovely cloth draped around her shoulders and Cadda’s hand in hers. Cadda embraced her dear Matta Heka, then Nansh took Heka’s hand in hers. She raised it to her lips, then pressured it to her cheek, closing her eyes briefly for a flood of memories to rush into her mind. Then, Heka kissed Nansh’s hand and they parted for the night. Nansh would take Cadda home where they would both sleep on the roof in the mild night air.

Heka stayed perched here sipping her brew later than she usually did; the children had fallen asleep inside. She felt a strange energy in the night’s air and a kind of restlessness in herself. She stepped inside the doorway to consult a stick that had many markings on it; she glanced up at the moon and made another mark on the stick. Satisfied, she returned the moonstick to its home and resumed her seat outside to savor her paramenstrual state of mind, from which she normally drew some revelation or innovation. She took a deep breath.

It was as if she was waiting for him – the ambling trader who appeared. He was enjoying a stroll and a pipe, and probably his solitude.

“Good moon, trader,” Heka purred.

“Ah! Hello, woman.”

She sipped her brew and he puffed his pipe.

For a moment both of them thought he would stroll on past, but he paused as if he were arrested by some sudden inspiration as he looked upon her carefully.

Finally, he said, “We bring gorgeous amulets from the eastern coast where the blue sea can be seen in the sparkle of every woman’s eyes. Do you not wish to see them, woman?”

“Our ancestors sometimes wore nothing at all,” Heka replied.

The man was speechless. He stood like a stone for several moments, then raised his pipe to his lips again, his eyes never leaving Heka.

He shifted the weight of his body as if to move away from this place, but Heka said, “Please, trader, come sit with me. Drink a brew with me. I have one steeping as we speak. Let me get it for us. Sit.”

He hesitated, but either out of obligatory politeness or curiosity – or perhaps it was the beguiling curve of this woman’s lips – he shifted his weight back toward her and took a seat beside her. She disappeared inside the house for several long moments and came back with an aromatic brew.

When he took the little bowl in his hands and felt its lightness he pitied the woman, but also admired her generosity. He thought the woman must be needy, which was the real reason she did not come to bargain with the tradesmen. He pulled the liquid to his lips and found it comfortingly hot and mysteriously pungent. The surprise of such unfamiliar notes and flavors flooded his sinuses, but he was able to keep command of his face just as its nose threatened to wrinkle. He was now glad for the smallness of the bowl, for its contents were very strong.

In the meantime the woman came and sat beside him again with her own bowl of piping brew. The hem of her tunic fell away from her leg to expose her beautiful flesh. He quickly lifted the bowl to his lips again to hide a little smile. Sometimes he forgot how handsome he was, but this woman, willing to part with actual sustenance just to entice him to stay with her this evening, reminded him. ‘How sweet!’ he thought. And she was not an unattractive woman, even if she was – with her exposed leg and what she probably believed was a tantalizing brew – somewhat obvious. These women of the West – wermadn, they called themselves – were quite different from the women of his home. Many of these western women were not even civilized enough to attach themselves to just one man. Instead, they birthed a gaggle of children and no one seemed to know or care who had sired them.

She was talking now – or was she singing? He heard, “Daughters…river…amulets…Ma…” but the voice trailed away and came back in intervals. Her lips were moving but he was becoming less able to discern her words. His mind was suddenly swimming, his thoughts nebulous. Her voice came back to the focus of his ears: “Will you remember? …Hard…to say.”

She was standing beside him now, taking the bowl from his hands. She put it somewhere and came back into view before him. She took his hands and led him through the doorway of the house. He passed through a room where he was vaguely aware that people were sleeping, then found himself looking up at the moon, the house behind him.

She was with him, holding his hand, he assumed, to keep him from floating away. There was but a narrow swath of land between her house and the tree line, and in this strip they stayed, admiring the moon’s light. She removed her tunic and looked so beautiful in the silvery blue light that he almost cried. He had never seen a sight like this, nor had he ever heard music as he now heard. It was coming from his own mind, his memories, and somehow she was connected and could hear it, too. She swayed and began to dance. He smiled, for he had never felt euphoria.

No woman would ever look the same to him after this. He would travel his usual routes, and even some unfamiliar ones, and all the women would look burdened and aging. The more they concentrated on evaluating his wares, selling him on the fine points of their own products, and unthinkingly shifting the weight of their babies from one hip to the other, the further out of reach this indelible image of this wermad became.

For the rest of his life he would question whether or not this image had been in a dream, and he decided that it had been. For he remembered that he had woken next to the fire in his men’s camp just outside the village. None of the other men had seen him return to the camp, for they had all been asleep. Yet beside him there had been a vessel of water, and since he had woken very, very thirsty was very grateful for its being there. But the vessel was an unfamiliar object with birds and V’s carved into its curved and slender body.

He had seen the woman again as the procession rolled out of the village. She was standing in her doorway, her face covered in shadow at first, but she moved forward to show herself. She was not looking at him, and indeed was not looking at anything in particular. And he knew that he would never know the difference between a dream and the reality of this woman. Though he doubted a seed for such a vivid dream existed in him, he doubted more that there was such beauty in this world.

 

Chapter Four: Hina

Hina opened her eyes to see two sets of adult legs creeping across the room; one pair was her Matta’s, the other belonged to a stranger. When they were past Hina raised up to see that the stranger was a Bahartr, and her Matta was leading him out the back of the house. Hina slid out from under her sleeping skins and hid herself under a window in the hearthroom to watch them.

The Bahartr was not really a Bahartr, but he was a male. He was one of the traders who had passed by the house when the sun was new. Hina remembered him because he wore such colorful clothing. He had a sharp but handsome face and he smiled kindly at all the children.

Now, he stood dumbly, and let his pipe fall to the ground. He was looking up at the moon. Matta Heka cast off her tunic and moved around the man; he began to sway with her. Hina saw how beautiful her Matta looked in the moon’s glow. This foreign man seemed so helpless in the presence of such beauty.

It was in this moment, with her hand cradling her gazing, awed face, that she recognized her Matta’s body: Heka’s body was like that of the little clay goddess she had made as a girl and who now looked over them from her own little shelf by the hearth. Heka was slender and she had always seemed quite tall to Hina, though Nansh and Mabal were far taller, and Matta Erua was the tallest. And Heka’s breasts were small, her hips wide and fecund, as were her little goddess’.

And Hina’s Matta had an easy way about her. She was never distressed or forlorn, helpless. It was clear what made her so attractive, especially to Ixi who clearly loved her and respected her above all wermadn.

This Bahartr now standing under the moon with Matta Heka was not Ixi. This Bahartr was dumbstruck and out of place, but he walked under the moon with Heka, and some of her magic would transfer to him, unworthy as he was. He stumbled and was clumsy; he giggled and grinned. When he could barely stand on his own, Heka led him inside.

Heka turned her head to the side to acknowledge her daughter crouching by the window, and she smiled. Hina stared at the couple, remembering herself only after they had disappeared into the night out the entry. She ran out to the moon-drenched swath of grass and retrieved her Matta’s tunic, holding it to her nose and inhaling the mysterious, herbal scent.

Hina lay the tunic on the floor beside her Matta’s sleeping bench, glancing up at Aki reverently as she did so. She was almost lost to a dream when her Matta returned, but Hina was aware enough to recognize that no sooner had Matta Heka returned than she left again. But when the sun was new again Hina found her Matta sleeping peacefully on her sleeping bench, her beautiful nut brown hair pouring out of her head, and Ista, who had crept up into his Matta’s arms sometime during the moon’s time, lay in her arms.

Hina crawled up beside her Matta, who turned over to envelope her oldest child in her arms. They napped like that for some time while Bara made a brew on the hearth. She brought it to them and the three children sipped while Matta Heka told stories about when she and the other Mattas were young girls. It was a cozy morning Hina tried hard to freeze in her memory. She hung onto every word her Matta Heka uttered, for she felt a change coming, though when she tried to bring that feeling into focus and consciousness it slipped away like water in her hand.

 

Chapter Five: Heka

Ixi arrived when the children had gone to the meadow. He darkened Heka’s doorway holding a freshly slaughtered hare. Heka smiled at him from her loom where she stood working, and they walked to a pit behind the house. They started a fire and arranged a spit over it to roast the meat.

“Thank you, Bahartr,” Heka said, squatting beside the fire and looking at him while she grinned.

“Of course, Matta.” He came to squat beside her and they looked into the fire together, their shoulders touching each other.

They sat like that for several moments and Heka enjoyed the comfort she felt in Ixi’s presence. He was a slim man, not tall, but strong. He had wild, wiry brown hair that sought to escape the leather thong he tried to tie it back with. Heka reached out to stroke those unruly locks but Ixi caught her hand between his shoulder and his ear and held it there. He brought that slender hand to his lips and pressed his lips to it lightly, then hard. He looked into Heka’s face now, then touched it: the pink skin of the cheekbone, the little chin, the lips that spread into a perpetual grin when he was present, the pointy nose with its sun’s kisses.

When the hare was skinned and roasting, Heka and Ixi went into the house, out of the hot midday sun. Heka reposed on a sleeping skin she spread on the floor while Ixi retrieved the sacred water vessel from the hearth’s room. He brought it to her reverently and they washed each other’s hands and feet. They made love and afterward lay content and happy in each other’s arms.

“Heka, have you had contact with the eastern traders?”

“I avoid them, Bahartr. And they me.”

“Do you fear them?”

“No. I fear their ways. Their customs are much different from ours. They speak of mountain gods and thunder gods. They do not know Ma.” Heka raised herself up as she said this and walked to the hearthroom to retrieve a bowl.

Ixi admired her naked form in movement, and now he accepted the bowl she offered him. He cupped it while she poured water from the sacred vessel. They took turns drinking from the bowl.

She asked, “Do you fear the traders? Are they a dangerous people?”

“They do not come deep into the forest, for they fear it, I believe. They stick to paths they have created, and some of them still travel the rivers on crafts, as they did when we were children. Remember? …They are not dangerous people, I think.”

Heka pawed again at his unruly hair which was now more uncontained than ever after sex. It bothered her that she shared something with the traders: she rarely went deeply into the forest anymore either. She pushed her regret away and said, “But, you are troubled Bahartr Ixi.”

He caressed her jawline. “It is like you said, Matta. They do not know Ma. They have no connection to Her, to us. They deal in things. I worry. I am unsettled as I walk through the forest these days.”

“You feel Ma’s worry. I feel it, too.”

Just then the children’s voices could be heard around the spit out back. They knew that newly hunted game meant Ixi was visiting, so they tumbled into the house with much excitement. “Ixi! Ixi!” they cried.

Ixi pulled Hina and Bara down onto the pallet he and Heka shared, kissing them on their cheeks and making them laugh heartily. Ista danced around the group until Ixi pulled him down into their circle. Ista threw his arms around Ixi and hugged him tightly.

“I have come to take you with me, Ista.”

Ista’s eyes grew wide. “Ixi! I’m going with you?”

“Yes, boy. You are going with me. And you shall bring our dear Azul with you. And I shall teach you about the forest. We shall leave when the sun comes up. Will you be ready?”

“Oh, yes!” he said quickly, for he had been begging Ixi for this honor for a long time.

Ixi and Heka made the evening meal while the children sat side-by-side, rapt while Ixi told wonderful stories about the forest and its denizens. Ixi pulled a handful of fur and a short spinning hook made from a tree twig from his satchel and began to spin it into thread as he talked. He put it into Ista’s hands and showed him how to draw the fur and spin it onto the spindle, something he had seen his Matta and sisters do with wool and plant fibers. Ista was eager to learn and frowned when Ixi stopped his little hands when the fur was running out.

“We’ll collect more fur in the forest, Ista,” said Ixi. “We’ll add what we find to this. Then, we’ll have a strong twine your Matta Nansh can use to tie up her medicine bundles.”

When their bellies were all full and they had exhausted Ixi’s forest tales, their eyes began to droop as the room darkened, for the sun had disappeared. The hearth’s fire was still burning and would warm them as they disrobed and slipped happily underneath their sleeping skins.

The two adults would retreat to Heka’s usual post outside the door of their house. It was late; the rest of the village had all but been silenced. The couple sat on the benches that flanked the threshold. Heka reached across the doorway toward her lover and they held their hands together for some moments. A little glow came from inside the house from the fire in the hearth. Though the children were tucked inside their sleeping skins now, Ista would probably find very little sleep. He would lay staring up at the ceiling of the house fantasizing about the forest and all he would do there. It was a mysterious and fascinating place to Ista, and home to his favorite Bahartr, Ixi.

When Ixi began to rub Heka’s hand suggestively she was reminded to record something on her moonstick, so she stood up from her nightly perch and reached inside the doorway to retrieve the stick and a little blade she kept there. She carved her nightly notch and stood considering it for a moment. The round moon and her moon blood would be upon her soon, and given her activity with Ixi she would have to drink one of Nansh and Mabal’s special brews for several moons hereafter to keep from becoming with child.

With that in mind she returned her moonstick to its home inside the doorway and went to Ixi. She lifted the hem of her tunic and straddled his thighs. They both worked to free the hem of his own clothing to pull it upward. He was instantly erect and they moaned in unison as she slid onto him.

When they had had their pleasure they took their sleeping skins to the roof of the house, accessible by a ladder in the hearthroom that pointed to an opening in the ceiling where smoke escaped, and they slept under the moon’s glow. It was too chilly for one person to sleep alone on the roof, but the heat of two lovers made it pleasant. They talked for a while, lying on their backs and taking in Ma’s gem, the moon.

Ixi told Heka how Nannum and Niav had taken up a house together. The two already had four children together, one of them but a baby, another one Hina’s peer Lada. Nannum was unkind to Ixi, and had begun to outwardly encourage Niav to separate herself from her old friends. The couple’s home was becoming a fortress, and, Ixi said, Heka should not expect Niav to participate in the old customs and ceremonies for much longer. Nannum had many dealings with the eastern traders, to whom he supplied goats’ milk, plain wool, and occasionally whatever of the Matta’s dyed cloth he could procure. And, Ixi had observed that Nannum harbored an ever intensifying fear of the forest. This was not so strange to Heka, for long ago Nannum had fallen in among the courtyard’s people and adopted more and more of their ways. The courtyard people were farmers and herders, and they had no love for the forest. No, they stayed close together inside their walls and fences, huddled as if the forest were an adversary.

In the morning Ixi and Ista would have vanished into the forest, taking Hebe’s son Azul with them. Heka was unsure of when they would return, so she busied herself with getting the morning meal prepared so she and her daughters could go about their duties, unfettered by male presences. They had much to do, Hina had much to learn, and Heka had never felt such urgency.

 

Chapter Six: Hina

The time had now come for Hina and her sisters to make their adamahs, for the oldest girls’ Sappurs were not far away, and it was custom for a girl to make her adamah before she bled. Hina had very much looked forward to this time ever since she was a young girl. Even then, she had held her Matta’s adamah with reverence and curiosity, studying its every curve and carving. She had spent many hours of her life studying her Nanna Gedda’s adamah, too, who was a very old goddess with a bulging round belly on which orb-like breasts rested. The pigment from Nanna’s own Sappur could no longer be seen, for it had been applied long before Matta Heka was born, but it was easy for Hina to imagine the scarlet smear that once graced the goddess’ body. The goddess’ eyes were like wise moons staring out and seeing everything. She wore a skirt that looked like rope, and her arms hung down at her sides. She always made Hina feel secure and comforted.

Normally, the creation of a girl’s adamah was overseen by her Matta, but Lada’s Matta was too busy with her babies and with Nannum, so Heka invited Lada to make her adamah alongside Hina. Hina observed Lada’s body relax in relief when Matta Heka made the offer, and the girl embraced the Matta for a long time.

“I have never seen my Matta’s goddess, Matta Heka. Perhaps she never made one,” Lada said.

“No. I remember her adamah very well,” Heka said. “Niav’s adamah was a pillar of clay whose face was covered. Niav was Mens’s best young weaver at that time, so she was well-practiced at making what was in her mind take shape in her hands.”

Unfortunately, Lada did not have that same skill, and it took several attempts for her clay to take any shape at all. Heka stayed near to Lada, and was pleased that the girl pressed on in spite of frustration. Sometimes Lada would stop her work and place her hands on the table in front of her. She would sit admiring Hina’s adamah, which easily came forth from the lump of clay. Then, with minimal success, Lada would try to copy her sister’s process.

Heka propped her own adamah up in front of the girls. It was cylindrical, and even though her belly was pregnant, it was not very large. Heka showed Lada how she had balled up little pieces of clay to use as the breasts, and how she carved a sacred V where the goddess’ legs came together at the inside of her thighs. The little goddess had long hair like Heka’s, and her eyes were scrutinizing and vigilant. They were eyes that seemed to be contemplating something very intensely.

This goddess was an inspiration for Lada. She studied it for a very long time, and finally the clay she took up in her hands again began to form a shape that resembled a female body. Her progress invigorated her, and soon they could all see a mysterious little goddess taking shape in Lada’s hands.

Occasionally Lada and Hina would take a break from their goddess-making to sit on the benches outside the house’s entry where the sun was warm and inviting. Sometimes they would close their eyes and tilt their face to the sky; other times they would sit with their legs folded up and their ankles crossed.

They would often hear voices of unfamiliar children coming from the courtyard, and sometimes the children to whom those voices belonged would dart out into visibility. Lada had become friendly with two of the young courtyard people on her way to and from Heka’s house each day. They were siblings – a boy, Selm; and a girl, Sera – whose family had been displaced to Mens after a fire had destroyed their garden and their house far away. They were one family of several who had relocated to Mens.

Lada was intrigued by them and their family. They had come from a place neither Lada nor Hina had ever heard of, and they had strange customs. They knew nothing of making goddesses, nor did they know how to spin thread or weave cloth.

“But they know how to make bread,” told Lada. “Their Matta makes them use special stones to grind grains she gets from the traders. Then, they add goat milk to the grains and cook it inside the hearth. They eat the bread for every meal.”

Hina listened to Lada closely, with great interest, and she stared forward into the mass of walls across the road from where the girls sat. She found that she could only catch glimpses of people in the courtyard as they walked between buildings or turned a corner only to turn once more into invisibility, for none of the alleyways were particularly long.

“Have you been in the courtyard, Lada?”

“Yes. Nannum goes there to trade bricks – and cloth when he can get it. I have gone with him. The market is a very loud place, and it’s very crowded sometimes. I do not like it.”

“Your Matta’s house is closer to the market than ours.”

“Yes. But Selm and Sera sometimes find me walking home, and they fall in with me,” Lada said. “I have told them about my adamah, and they are anxious for me to show it to them when it’s done. Their Matta has no adamah, and Sera is too young to have her own.”

Hina turned to face her friend. “Perhaps Sera can make an adamah when she is older. You must bring her here – and her Bahartr, too.”

Lada laughed. “I shall!”

That evening when Lada stepped outside to walk home Selm and Sera were waiting for her. Hina saw them walk off together. Selm glanced Hina’s way and they shared a look. Then they were gone.

But they were back the next day, creeping in cautiously behind Lada, who seemed to bounce everywhere she went.

“Welcome, children!” Matta Heka sang out. “Come, come.”

Matta Heka ushered them in while Hina observed quietly and carefully. Bara made friends more easily; she approached Sera, who was younger than Bara, and took her hand. “I am Bara,” she said.

“This is Sera,” Lada said.

“Sera,” Bara repeated.

“And this is Selm,” Lada said.

“Lada, let us welcome our guests with a brew,” Matta Heka suggested. And Lada skipped over to the hearth and began the ritual of making a large pot of brew they would sip on for the whole morning.

Sera was mesmerized with the parade of little clay wermadn lined up on the floor of the house. Bara let go of her hand and let her drift toward them. “This one is our Matta Heka’s adamah. This is my sister Hina’s adamah, and this is Lada’s.”

Hina took up her Matta’s adamah and put it in the child’s hands.

“Be careful, Sera! Don’t drop it,” Selm reproached his little sister.

“No,” Matta Heka cooed, crouched down so that her lips were near Sera’s ear, “there is nothing more delicate than a little girl’s hands. This adamah is safe with Sera.”

Sera smiled from ear-to-ear, and Hina saw that the flesh around the child’s teeth was very red. Still, Sera’s was a lovely little face, and Bara grew to love her immediately. Bara showed Selm and Sera where to find water, and they made several trips to the nearby spring lugging Matta Heka’s water vessels back and forth. All the while, Lada and Hina happily went about their creating. The work had never been so smooth as they had a steady supply of water and brew.

When the sun was at the highest point in the sky, Matta Heka instructed the children to wash their hands out back. After some playful splashing in the abundant water, the children came inside and Matta Heka served them nut paste and fruit. Hina observed her Matta, and was puzzled, for Matta Heka had made a special brew to which she had added honey, a very rare commodity, and she very particularly served the sweetened brew to Selm and Sera. The children tasted it and smiled, thinking it was quite the treat.

Bara and her newfound friends helped clean the hearth and the bowls while Hina and Lada went back to work on their adamahs. They were enjoying an especially productive day, and since, with so many helpful hands, there was now a dearth of chores to be done, Matta Heka gathered Bara, Selm, and Sera to her and told them stories of how Matta Aki had helped her create her adamah. She held Sera on her lap as she talked, and Sera held Matta Heka’s little statuette in her hands carefully.

When the sun began to descend, it was time for everyone to disperse, which especially saddened Sera. But Selm and Sera agreed to see Lada home, and Hina welcomed them to return on the next sun.

After their moon’s meal, when Matta Heka and Matta Nansh sat out-of-doors sipping their nightly brew, Hina and Bara lay on the floor of the house alongside all the adamah. They picked them up and examined them one-by-one.

With Lada’s adamah in her hands, Bara said, “Lada’s adamah is fine. Look at her sacred V. It’s very straight.”

Hina came close to her sister and peered closely at Lada’s adamah. “I like her, too. Her hair is beautiful and long like Lada’s Matta Niav’s hair. Her breasts are like when the rain hangs from the roof of the house before falling to the ground.” Hina and Bara smiled.

Hina picked up her own adamah. She fondled the little goddess, turning it over and over looking for flaws. She was mostly happy with how the statuette had turned out. Her adamah was slim with small protruding breasts and a pregnant belly. A pregnant belly was the one trait all the village girls’ goddesses had in common, and when two friends came together they would touch their goddess’ bellies together to show intimacy and love.

Finally, Matta Heka came back inside the house and joined the girls on the floor. She lay on her stomach and admired the adamah. Hina felt very proud when her Matta held her adamah and looked at it with such approval. Hina looked at her Matta, and looked toward the door where her Matta’s moonstick hung. Hina popped up from her place on the floor and retrieved the moonstick. She brought it to her Matta.

Matta Heka took it from her daughter with a smile and a kind of wistful look in her eyes. She squeezed Hina’s hand.

Matta Heka said, “Let me show you both. Bara, are you listening?”

Bara put down Hina’s goddess and curled up beside her Matta.

“After your Sappur, you will keep a moonstick,” Heka said.

Hina’s brows furrowed. “I have never seen you make a moonstick, Matta, like Matta Nansh and Matta Mabal do.”

Matta Heka grinned curiously. “Ixi makes my moonsticks.”

Now, she put her hand between her legs inside her tunic. Hina knew she was touching her Source, her own sacred V; she had seen her Matta do this before. Matta Heka now held her hand in front of her eyes to observe the moisture, a web of wetness stretching between her forefinger and her thumb.

“What does it mean?” Bara asked.

“My Source is now, and for several moons to come, like the spring from which we collect our water. It is wet and flowing. It means that I can become pregnant. But after these suns of being like a spring, my Source will become dry again, and soon after my moon blood will come.” Matta Heka went on to explain the correlation between her marks on her moonstick and the moisture or dryness of her Source.

Hina and Bara listened with unwavering attention, for it seemed to them magical to be like a spring. Hina wondered how she would feel when Ma spoke to her as She spoke to Matta Heka. Hina tried to imagine how it would feel for her body to undulate and become like a snake that could connect its beginning to its end, to start where it had ended, and end where it started. She observed her Matta’s beauty now, which had increased with Hina’s knowledge of the magic of a Matta’s body. It was truly a thing of wonder, as if every change in a Matta’s body was Ma whispering.

Bara kissed her Matta on her cheek. Matta Heka smiled and said, “You, girls, will be like the seasons that change, and come back, and change, and come back. You will be like the butterflies who have changed from caterpillars. Wermadn are beloved by Ma, and our changes are proof. We change, but we remain constant, like many other things She has created.”

These were beautiful thoughts to have in their heads as they rolled out their sleeping mats and lay down their heads. Their dreams were glimpses into Ma’s imagination, for She is creativity itself. And when Hina woke the next morning, she felt invigorated and inspired. Alongside Lada she sculpted her adamah while Bara and Matta Heka worked the loom as sunlight poured into the house. They were mostly quiet and thoughtful this sun, but mirthful in spirit.

Stalwart Selm appeared to escort Lada home before the sun descended. He smiled at Matta Heka and thanked her for the previous sun’s meal and brew.

“What a handsome boy you are, Selm! Please, take these dried berries home and share them with sweet Sera,” Matta Heka insisted. She pushed the parcel of fruit into the boy’s hands before he could deny her, and ushered him and Lada out the door.

Selm and Lada arrived again the next sun with Sera in tow. Matta Heka encouraged Bara and Sera to play outdoors, for Hina and Lada would finish their adamahs this sun, but Selm would not leave. Instead, he sat quietly in a corner, mostly unnoticed and unintrusive, but extremely helpful to Heka, who happily worked her loom after she had given Selm the task of combing fibers that would make thread. He caught on to the job very quickly, and Hina saw her Matta and Selm exchange numerous smiles over the course of the sun. Hina was comforted by these smiles, as well as the pleasing sounds of Matta Heka’s loom’s wood clacking softly and the brushing sounds of Selm’s stone comb as he turned the stringy, hard fibers into silk.

Eventually, Bara was called back inside and put to work making a midsun meal for the lot of them. She showed Sera the process of making nut paste, and soon the two of them had a delectable spread prepared for everyone.

“Children, Hina and Lada will complete their adamahs this sun,” said Matta Heka. “Hasn’t this been a wonderful time of learning and creating? Behold our loom! The cloth is nearly completed and Selm has created wool I will spin for my next tapestry.”

Selm beamed and looked over his shoulder at the loom on the wall beyond the hearthroom. Hina looked, too, and took in the pretty cloth Matta Heka had created. It was a fine weave that would wear easily, and would make a fine tunic. Its color reminded Hina of her Matta’s bath water during her moon blood. Sometimes they would bathe in the spring, and the water that rinsed the inside of Matta Heka’s thighs and washed away the blood was the color of this lovely cloth. It would drape lovely over a wermad’s curves.

Hina looked at Selm again; he had gone back to scarfing down the food before him. She was cognizant now that it was impossible that he was thinking of this cloth being the color of watery blood and how effortlessly and beautifully it would adorn bodily curves. To him, it was merely cloth; nothing more. It saddened her, and she wished he could feel what she felt and see what she saw. She took this disappointment and bundled it up in her mind; she stored it away for later, intuiting that after more time had passed she would know what to do with it.

Lada and Hina did indeed complete their adamahs, and this sun ended much like the one before, with Selm, Sera, and Lada disappearing down the lane and Matta Heka marking her moonstick. Hina dreamt a lovely dream that her adamah spoke to her, and she woke from the dream when the moon still governed the sky. She lay awake for some savory moments enjoying the memory of her dream.

They were awoken the next sun by an aroma coming in through the windows. Bara jumped up, sniffed the air, and disappeared out the door. She came back in a matter of a few moments and announced, “Matta Nansh cooks a meal for us! She asks us to come.”

Hina and Matta Heka found the house next door to be overrun with a celebratory air, for Pana and Cadda had both completed their adamahs, who were now reverently displayed on a shelf. Hina, Bara, and Matta Heka all admired the two little goddesses.

“Our adamahs will all bake together in Nanna Wedda’s oven, Hina,” said Cadda.

Hina smiled, and Cadda reached for her goddess and put it in Hina’s hands. Hina turned the little goddess over and over to get to know her. The little statue was so like Cadda. The adamah was smooth like river stone. She wore a long skirt, and her little toes peeped out from the hem, but she was naked from the waist up. Her breasts were large, very round, and expertly crafted. They did not look like two balls of clay, but they sloped down from her shoulders gracefully and seamlessly. Her face was covered with texture so that her features were not visible, but Hina appreciated the mysterious veiled face. It felt like possibilities, opportunities, limitlessness. Hina’s heart surged in that same way it did when she had an idea. She smiled broadly as she handed Cadda’s adamah back to her. Cadda’s face was lit up with pleasure, too, and there was a feeling of lightness and arousal among the chatty diners.

Lada appeared after some time, and Matta Nansh took the girl in her arms. Hina watched with great interest, for she suddenly felt deep sadness for Lada, who would have risen with the sun with her first thought being of her adamah. She would have anxiously skipped down the lane, now clotted with hawkers and goatherds, only to arrive at Matta Heka’s house to find it empty. So she wandered next door to find the Mattas and their heirs merry and well-fed.

Cadda, always able to read Hina in her quiet moments, reached out and put food into a bowl. She handed it off to Hina, who stood and brought it to her sister Lada, serving her with a kiss to her cheek. Lada looked at Hina gratefully and began to eat.

 

Chapter Seven: Heka

Heka stirred on her sleeping bench when there was a bright orange hue radiating in the East. For many moments she lay under her sleeping skins enjoying the silence, but after some time she discerned a scraping sound coming from the back of the house, outside. She lay as still as she could manage, listening. Finally, a man’s voice, just above a whisper, spoke, and a younger voice answered.

Heka smiled. The cadence of Ista’s eager tone answering Ixi’s instructional one carried on between long intervals of the brushing sound. Finally, Hina awoke on her pallet on the floor, turned over to face her Matta and whispered, “Matta, what is that sound?”

“Ixi and Ista are there, child. They are carving moonsticks.”

Hina smiled and lay back down. She stared up at the ceiling enjoying the pleasant brushing, scraping sound of Ixi’s blade on the wood. Occasionally the scraping would stop and the sound of Ixi or Ista blowing wood dust away could be heard.

When Ixi and Ista’s hands finally stilled altogether, they remained outdoors, but the gentle aroma of smoke wafted into the house tentatively, as if it were asking permission to come in. It occurred to Heka, as it had so many times, that Bahartr were generally not a talkative lot. Ixi had always been quite pleased to sit and observe as Heka and her children or the other wermadn exchanged thoughts and ideas, and plotted and planned. Ixi’s pipe’s smoke was now a reminder of his quiet participation in the ritual of life, and his reliance on her spirit. Heka enjoyed feeling depended upon by such a capable Bahartr. Theirs was a fine partnership.

As the sun ascended, one final owl, not anxious to let go of her nocturnal vigilance, hooted her last prayer to her glorious friend the moon. It was a cue to Heka herself to, like the owl, surrender to the sun. But unlike the now restful owl, Heka became busy, stealing into her hearthroom and putting water on to boil. She smiled as she lifted one of the water vessels, for it was far heavier than it had been yesterday, having been filled early this morning while she slept. Ixi and Ista would have first filled the water vessels; then, when there was just enough light, they settled onto the benches at the back of the house to carve moonsticks.

She found them there sharing their pipe, a little stack of moonsticks lay between them. Ista sprang from the bench when his Matta appeared, and he threw his arms around her waist. Heka held him to her tightly, and kissed the top of his head.

She picked up the stack of moonsticks, placed them in her lap, and sat between Ixi and Ista, resting her head on Ixi’s shoulder. He kissed her and asked, gesturing to the moonsticks, “Will these be enough?”

“Yes, Bahartr.”

“Matta,” Ista panted, “I made this one for Hina.”

Heka took her son’s hand in hers and kissed it. “You are a clever boy, Ista. You have learned many things from Bahartr Ixi?”

He nodded his head vigorously. He did not seem any older to Heka; she had expected him to, even after only a few suns and moons.

“We brought you these, Matta,” said Ista, retrieving a brace of noisome fish from nearby.

Heka was genuinely pleased, for fish were her favorite. Her eyes widened and she smiled broadly at Ista. “We shall have a feast this sun!” she said.

Hina appeared now with a bowl of brew in her hands. After she handed the bowl to her Matta, she nuzzled up to Ixi, and Ista came to sit at her feet. He patted her arm and looked up at her.

Finally, Heka said, “Come, Ixi. Let us prepare these fish.” And they set about scaling the fish that would be cooked over the hot coals of a fire Ixi started in the pit.

Now, Ista came to sit beside his sister. Heka squatted over the fish nearby, observing her son and daughter, but keeping her eyes on her work.

“Sister, Ixi says that soon you will have your moon blood. I made you this,” Ista said, handing her the moonstick.

Hina took the stick into her nimble little hands and looked at it expressionlessly.

Ista continued, “Sister, I cannot become a Bahartr without bringing value to you.”

Hina did not speak, but she took Ista in her arms, her tender embrace conveying far more than the words she was unable to find would. The two of them sat in this way for many moments, and Heka was touched.

When Lada, Selm, and Sera arrived, Ista, who was very pleased to have another boy around, was eager to show Selm the moonsticks he had learned to carve. Heka worried that Ista was overwhelming poor Selm, for Selm was even more reticent than usual, being bombarded by young Ista’s surplus enthusiasm and the addition of yet more foreign ideas, and when Azul arrived her worry grew. The house had become a buzzing hive, and Heka herself was harried by all the bodies and voices.

But finally they were all seated at and around the hearthroom table nibbling on Ista’s fish. Heka served Selm and Sera fresh berries from a bowl, then placed the bowl near them and encouraged them to take as many as they could eat.

When the crowd’s fervor had subsided, their bellies all full, Heka noticed that Selm still held a moonstick in his hand. He brought it up to his eyes and studied it closely. It was a completely foreign object to him, and he did not understand the cycle it represented, much less its purpose. His expression was one of simultaneous wonderment and befuddlement, even after Azul kindly explained the purpose of it.

When the sun had finally almost completely disappeared, Heka wandered out into the dusk to find Selm waiting for Sera and Lada. She perched on her bench the way she always did. Both at a loss for words to say to one another, Heka and Selm looked upward to where the moon was beginning to appear like a silvery apparition.

“Remember your dreams tonight, Selm,” she said.

Just then, Lada and Sera tumbled out of the house and, after kissing Heka, fell in with Selm on the road toward Lada’s house. Narrowing her eyes, Heka saw two other figures slinking away into the evening’s shadows. Though one of these male figures was slightly taller than the other, they walked with the same gait and the same posture.

Thusly, Heka knew she would be sleeping alone under this moon, and she did not sleep well, for her dreams were dark and her body was restless, disturbed by an ominous sense she felt about Selm and disappointed that Ixi had abandoned her. The resulting fatigue cast an unfortunate shadow over the next sun, which was to be the Ceremony of the Oven. Still, she kept these unsettling thoughts to herself, burdensome though they were.

Hina, Bara, and Ista were very early to rise, their excitement bubbling up and refusing to be ignored. They could not keep themselves asleep any longer. Hina put her siblings to work making their first meal of the day while she folded and stowed their sleeping skins and mats.

When the sun had completely illuminated the house, Ixi and Azul arrived. Heka, who had remained snoozing on her sleeping bench while the children bustled about in the hearthroom, kept her face turned to the wall. Ixi did not come to her; instead, he ushered the children outside where they would eat their meal al fresco, putting some vittles aside for Heka.

Hina came to her Matta while the rest of the group tittered outside. Heka, who had lain awake for some time now, pulled herself up on her sleeping bench and took in her hands Hina’s offering – a fresh brew, somewhat cooled by now, but refreshing and reviving.

“Selm says his people believe their wermadn to be unclean when they bleed, Matta,” Hina said. “His Matta sleeps on the roof of the house during her Sappur, and she cannot be in the house with a Bahartr while she bleeds.”

Matta and daughter sat silent for many troubled moments. Eventually, and without a word, Hina glided away to the back of the house again, leaving Heka with her problematic thoughts.

Heka did not fall back asleep. She lay awake wondering if she would see Selm and Sera today. She pictured their mama in her mind, lying on the roof of their house alone. Perhaps she scurried into the hearthroom at dawn to make the family’s meals before resuming her banishment on the roof. Perhaps there were other wermadn inhabiting other rooves nearby. The thought of one slender feminine arm reaching out to another, across a narrow alleyway between the courtyard houses, was a pleasant one to Heka. Perhaps the wermadn preferred to live on rooves during their menstruation, much like the ancient wermadn camped in the yoni grove to celebrate their moon blood together.

But the word unclean haunted Heka and cast a shadow over her. She brought Aki down from her shelf above the sleeping bench. The bone was pure white, having been so completely bathed in sunlight, and it was very beautiful. Heka’s fingertips caressed the skull’s temples and she was comforted.

Now, Heka reckoned, the time had come for her to participate in this sun. She climbed out of her sleeping bench and paused to let her feet dangle over the floor. She heard the many voices outside rising and falling, and the familiar scraping sound accompanied by the occasional blowing of air through lips.

They were Azul’s lips. He was now fashioning a moonstick while Ixi oversaw. The others stood around and watched. Azul’s hands moved confidently and expertly. He had done this before. Heka leaned against the doorframe sipping brew that had been steeping on the hearth. She watched Azul with great interest, admiring his handsome jaw and wavy black hair. He looked not unlike his Matta, Hebe, for there was no denying that Hebe was a beauty.

Heka’s own moonstick would show that she was just a few moons away from her moon blood, and this was the reason her mind had determined to flood itself with reveries and reflections. She was forced to indulge them, even though they sometimes hurt, but she could not look at Ixi now. She knew escaping the thoughts of him was impossible, for her dreams would be filled with him this moon even if her bed was not, but in this moment – her daughters’ Sappur on the horizon and an oven ceremony to take place this very sun – she could push the thoughts to the very back of her skull to be ignored for just a little while longer.

But without her permission her thoughts returned to the two figures disappearing into the darkness down the road under the last moon. The two figures were almost the same height, and they both walked with the same stride, the same gait. Now, here they were before Heka, no longer two figures dematerializing into the darkness, but two parts of herself illuminated by the light of this sun, Azul carving moonsticks – none of which would be accepted by his own Matta – and Ixi sharing a bowl of brew with little Bara.

Heka’s heart was wrenched, but seeing the light on Hina’s hopeful face fueled her determination to put her own heartbreak aside. Still, she agonized over what this moon would hold: would Ixi be by her side, or with Hebe? She was ashamed to be so distracted, so she busied herself brewing more brew and eating the food Ixi had reserved for her. She stood alone in the hearthroom consuming her meal, but not really tasting anything.

She slipped out the front door of the house and went next door. Nansh and Mabal’s house was silent, and only Mabal and Bethid were there, forming a charming tableau. Mabal’s arms danced with liquid agility, spinning wool, while her adoring Bethid sat at her feet combing fibers through a stone comb. Bethid’s loyal and constant mongrel lay on her side at the couple’s feet, snoring.

Mabal looked up at her friend and found that words were unneeded; Heka’s artless face wore its burden of disappointment. Mabal silently put away her spindle and wool and opened her arms. Heka fell into them and nuzzled her head into Mabal’s shoulder. Bethid scooted closer and took Heka’s hand in his, kissing it. Heka looked down on Bethid’s kindly face and smiled; she touched his jaw.

“Where is everyone else?” Heka asked.

“They’ve gone to the forest’s edge to collect berries to serve after the ceremony,” Mabal answered, smoothing Heka’s hair with a gentle hand.

After a few consoling moments, Heka pulled away from Mabal and Bethid and restlessly walked around the room, fingering the tapestry on the loom, grasping a fistful of wool from Bethid’s basket, petting the grateful dog. Finally, she kissed her friends, thanked them, and headed back in the direction of her own house, fixing a brave face as she went.

But, to her surprise, there was Ixi outside waiting for her. She resented that he stood before her like a child waiting to be admonished, but she supposed he felt shame, and she could not encourage such a pointless emotion.

Still, she was his leader, not his Matta, and he was not a child. She said, “You love Hebe, Bahartr. I loved her once, too.”

He said nothing. He continued to look into her eyes, though. Some moments passed while they stood looking at each other wordless. Finally, she said, “Come Bahartr,” and touched his shoulder as she walked by him. He followed her.

They met Selm and Sera emerging from the courtyard maze, and Heka ushered them into the house. Soon, they were all prepared to march to Erua’s house for the ceremony. Hina stood holding her adamah proudly, and a little nervously, but with a very worried look on her face.

“Matta, where is Lada?” Hina asked.

Heka’s heart sank. She glanced in the direction of the window to confirm that the sun was plenty high enough for Lada to have already arrived. Now, Heka feared she must do what she had been loath to do, and grateful she had not needed to – until now.

“I will go and find her,” Selm offered.

“No, Selm. I will go.” And she swept out the door after exchanging a sharp look with Ixi.

Heka picked her way along the road, whose traffic grew thicker the further she got from her house. She grew angry at Niav the more she bumped into other people and was shouldered by grouchy strangers. Niav was to blame for Heka being forced out of the comfort of her quiet and productive house into the dirty unpleasantness of Mens while the much anticipated Ceremony of the Oven was delayed.

She could hear a baby bawling well before she reached Niav’s door. There was a curtain of gauzy fabric over the door, and before she lifted it away she tried calling Niav’s name, but the babe’s cries drowned out Heka’s voice. Inside the house two toddlers played on the floor while Niav paced the floor with the baby in her arms, trying to console it. One of the toddlers presently clambered up from the floor and began to run around the room wildly while the other child cried.

Heka scooped the rampant child up in her arms before some calamity befell him and he, too, would start to wail. She found a toy in his hands and handed it to the crying child on the floor, whose cries ceased immediately. The child she had apprehended looked at Heka with a blank expression; he was trying to figure out who she was.

Niav’s face was grateful for an instant, but then went back to its sour expression. She busied herself at the hearth, clumsy with the baby in her arms. “Lada is not here,” she said.

“Here, let me,” Heka said, scooting Niav out of the way of the hearth and taking over stirring the contents of a cooking bowl heating there.

Heka did not say another word until the food – a white mushy cereal with which Heka was unfamiliar – was prepared and cooled enough for the toddlers to eat. They ate hungrily, and Heka knew she did not have many moments until their voices rose again and they demanded attention.

“Niav, sister, where is your adamah?”

“It doesn’t matter. I am too busy to spare Lada today,” Niav said, the baby suckling at her breast.

“Sister, if you do not let her go, she will tear herself away from you. Perhaps not today, but someday.”

“Nannum will see her back, then. He will always fetch her back.”

Niav smiled at her baby, who cooed now, and Heka could see that Niav’s tooth flesh was very red. Her dark hair still spilled down her back in a long cascade as it did when she and Heka were girls, but it had grown dull, and was now tied back with a plain string.

Heka left Niav to her babies and housekeeping, seeing on her way out the door that there was now no loom in Niav’s house. Heka turned her head and asked, “Niav, what has become of your Matta’s loom? It once stood here.”

“Nannum traded it,” was Niav’s unfeeling reply.

Once on the other side of the curtain, and bracing herself for the harrowing walk back to her house, Heka’s mind was full of Ixi’s words: “Do not expect Niav to be with you,” he had said as he lay in her arms on the roof of her house several moons ago.

Long ago, a crack had formed in Heka’s heart as Niav began to drift away from the Mattas, and over time the crack had become a gaping fissure. Niav was not the governor of her house as her Nanna had been, or as the other Mattas were. She was lost now, for Nannum had taken up the ways of the people of the East, and Niav had not had the strength to fight it, for she was always with child, and she had renounced her sisters, so she was alone.

Niav was lost, but Lada was not. So, Heka went straight to Selm, who she found waiting patiently for her return.

“Go and find Lada in the marketplace, Selm. You can find her far more easily than I. Tell her we will not start the ceremony without her.”

Dependable Selm disappeared into the courtyard as quickly as he could.

Ixi came and took Heka’s hand. They looked at each other for a long moment, but neither said anything.

Nansh finally appeared and found Heka’s house suspended with worry and tension, for Hina and Bara sat with worried looks on their faces, fearful their heightened expectations would be dashed today. Even Ixi, who was always composed, wore an unsettled countenance.

After Heka explained the predicament to Nansh, Nansh said, “Well, we have no choice but to wait. We will not go on without one of our little Mattas. Let us relax with a bowl of brew.”

The household eventually accepted that the day would continue with much uncertainty, and Bara and Hina wandered over to their Matta’s loom and began to work. The boys were fascinated when Ixi took out his spindle and a clump of animal fur and began to spin. Each of them begged for a turn.

Each person looked toward the doorway periodically, as if looking for Lada would bring her faster, but they remained disappointed for a very long time. Eventually, Mabal appeared with Cadda and Pana, and they joined the anticipating group. Each girl held her adamah with fearful, careful hands.

They ate a meal while they waited, for the sun was now at its highest point, and their stomachs rumbled. Then, finally, slapping, running footfalls came into earshot and Lada and Selm appeared, breathless from running.

“I ran away from the market, Mattas,” Lada gasped. “Nannum will realize I’m gone.”

Nansh put an arm around Lada and kissed the top of her head. Holding the girl closely, she looked at Heka and said, “Even Nannum would have sense enough to stay away from the Mattas’ ceremony. Come! Let us go.” And they all marched on to Erua’s house, where they found Peor and Bethid waiting, a sizeable stack of dry twigs and freshly split wood nearby. The Mattas and the girls gathered outside around the oven, a large clay beehive shaped thing tucked into a picturesque grove of trees, some of the last to stand in Mens.

Erua instructed them: “Your adamahs will go inside the oven to bake, and when they emerge they will be strong and hard. Place your statues here.” And she pointed to the large, flat river rock housed inside the oven, which had been built over a pit for fire.

Cadda, Pana, Lada, and Hina stepped forward to carefully place their creations on the rock. Each of them looked nervous, and none of them smiled.

Now, Erua and Nansh started the fire. They would bring the flames up slowly, and stoke it regularly using the stoke holes at the bottom of the oven. As the sun descended, they would feed their fire the nearby logs, one-by-one.

The wermadn prayed. They stood around the beehive shaped clay oven reverently. There was a particular chill in the air this sun, and they were all comforted by the warmth of the crackling fire.

Ixi kept the boys and Sera in the periphery of the ceremony. Ista, Azul, Selm, and little Sera stood looking on as the Mensian girls and their Mattas squatted, touching the earth beneath them – the flesh of Ma –, the Mattas clasping their adamahs to their breasts.

Heka stole several glances at Selm. After several moments Selm, as if entranced, moved to draw closer to the activity around the oven, for it was apparent that magic was occurring there, and his view was somewhat obstructed by Tait and Bara, who stood between the two groups watching closely for opportunities to be of assistance. But Ixi pulled Selm back, saying, “No, Selm. What you are seeing is sacred. Bahartr respect the sanctity of wermadn, and only they are worthy of the divinity of the sacred oven, which was formed by the hands of our Nannas. No Bahartr has ever touched the oven.”

Heka now wondered if she was vindicated, and if Selm’s mama was vindicated. She searched the boy’s face as they shared a long and pregnant look, but she could not be sure of his learning. His face was blank, perhaps a little awed. His eyes were wide with curiosity, and his mouth somewhat agape.

The adamahs would bake for a long while, but the gathering was made very merry by Bara and Tait, who danced while Cadda and Pana served brew, greens, and berries. The setting sun shone brightly down on them, even as they celebrated under a canopy, for the falling leaves left generous spaces for light to find its way to the revelry, and though it was growing colder now, the heat from the oven kept the merrymakers warm.

Heka delighted to find her children so happy, but she found it impossible to shake off the feeling that unpleasant changes were imminent. Ixi stayed close to her, and kissed her many times, but her heart still smarted from her loneliness and from the sense that Ixi was obligatorily dutiful to her. She smiled and felt bitter sweetness when Ixi and his protégés gathered around Ixi’s satchel with some air of furtiveness, then proudly distributed their carved moonsticks to the young Mattas.

Again, Heka looked at Selm with hope for his erudition. The boy was looking at Azul and Lada with great interest. Heka saw Azul hand Lada a moonstick of her own – a gesture that was followed by Lada’s tears and a tight embrace between the two childhood friends. Selm looked down at his feet, and Heka thought he looked wounded and out-of-place.

 

 

When they arrived back at Heka’s house, Nannum was stationed at the door waiting. Lada sidled up closely to Heka and took Heka’s hand. Heka sensed Ixi straighten his back, anticipating a confrontation.

“Nannum, won’t you come inside for a bowl of brew?” Heka asked.

“I’ve come to take Lada home,” Nannum said.

“Come inside, Bahartr Nannum. I have some things to send with you, to take home to Niav.” And Heka and the children slid past Nannum, in spite of his attempt to block the door. Ixi put a hand on Nannum’s back and ushered him inside.

The girls clustered together to place their adamahs in an honored spot – a shelf that had been set into the plaster of the wall – near Heka’s sleeping bench. Nannum and Selm exchanged a nod of recognition, for they knew each other from the marketplace.

“Come, Bahartr,” Ixi said to Nannum, guiding him into the hearth room where Heka prepared brew. The two Bahartr sat down at the table.

“I’ve come to take Lada home,” Nannum repeated. “She will not be returning to your home, Heka. She has much work to do at home, and in the marketplace with me.”

Heka exchanged a look with Lada, who looked on worriedly from the next room. Heka’s face was calm and sure, and she said to Nannum, “Lada has just come from the Ceremony of the Oven where she has fired her adamah. She is a wermad now, and wermadn decide where they live. It is not your choice, Nannum.”

Nannum made to stand up, but Ixi put a firm, pressing hand on his shoulder. “Come, come,” Ixi muttered.

Heka kept her hands busy tying up a little bundle for Niav. The bundle contained dried berries and some wilted greens; she hoped they would not go to waste.

“The wermadn in the Courtyard defer to their husbands. That is how we live now,” Nannum said.

“Hm,” said Heka. “That does sadden me, for it is folly. But it is not how we live. It is not what Lada has chosen.”

“Nannum,” a voice at Heka’s side interjected, “I have made my choice. I will wear the colors of the Mattas. Today, I have stepped onto the path of the Mattas, the most sacred of all of Ma’s creations. You must revere us as you were taught in your youth.”

“You are a foolish little girl, Lada,” Nannum seethed.

“You are a foolish one, Nannum,” Lada answered. “You continue to impregnate my Matta. Child after child is born to her, and you do not care for any of them. I pity them. I wish to save them from you. But first I must reclaim my own life, which you imprudently desecrate with your commands and conditions. You cannot command the Mattas.” Then, Lada snatched Heka’s bundle and thrust it into Nannum’s hands. “Take this to my Matta. Tell her what has happened.”

Nannum, stunned, stood up from the table and, remembering himself, stormed out.

Lada turned to Heka and embraced her. The girl was shaking, and she began to sob a little, but Heka held her and stroked her hair until Lada was calm.

Wiping the tears off her face, Lada said, “I will go back to my Matta’s house. But I won’t go with Nannum. Not that way.”

“Of course not, child. No, little Matta,” Heka agreed.

It was dark outside now, and the moon was but a sliver in the sky. Selm and Sera saw Lada home, but Heka was pained to see Lada leave to return to such a hostile house.

Ixi consoled her. “Lada has proven her strength today. And it will only grow.”

Heka smiled. “You are right, Bahartr. Of all the little Mattas, she is perhaps the most transformed.”

“Lada is making a choice. Among all of us it is hardest for her to keep the old ways,” Ixi said.

He moved close to Heka and knelt before her, placing his head in her lap. She put her hands on his head, and they stayed there motionless for several moments.

Azul had gone home and Ista, Bara, and Hina, having moved their sleeping pallets closer to the burning hearth, were snuggling down under their sleeping skins. Heka left Ixi to kiss each of her children and wish them a wonderful trip to dreams. Then, she followed him to the roof where he had taken their sleeping skins.

He sat looking into the fire of a torch he had situated there, and Heka came and stood before him. She disrobed, but when he reached out for her she moved out of reach. She stood looking at the little moon, letting Ixi admire her naked body from a distance. Then, she lay down beside him; he didn’t touch her, for he was waiting for an invitation.

But she did not invite him. Instead, she lay on her back with her knees bent, and she touched herself between her thighs and moaned. She locked eyes with him; his eyes were wide and almost frightened. He looked very innocent in this moment, and very helpless. He was erect beneath his tunic, but he had nothing to do with his useless hands.

She rose up to her knees and cupped her breasts. She continued to touch herself and moan, and finally she let him participate: she smeared her wet finger on his lips. He put his hands up, then awkwardly put them down again. Just before she satisfied herself, she flung up the hem of Ixi’s tunic and sat astride him, putting him inside her. She burst then, and he followed a few moments later.

Heka woke the next morning seeing that the torch’s fire had gone out, and that Ixi had covered her in his sleeping skin, too. He was gone now, as was Ista. They and Azul would have returned to the forest.

 

Chapter Eight: Lada

The baby had cried almost the entire moon. Lada had dreamt of spiders during short intervals of sleep, and an unsettling feeling had nestled itself in her spirit. Nevertheless, her morning duties would not desist, so she dragged herself to the hearth to begin cooking a meal for her Matta, who lay asleep almost like a corpse, and the other children, who lay sleeping soundly and exhausted after such a raucous moon filled with the baby’s harrowing cries.

Nannum stole in and dumped some firewood next to the hearth, which made a clatter that made Lada wince. Her Matta only shifted a little on her sleeping bench, but stayed asleep, and, thankfully, the children did not budge.

Nannum came close to Lada, and he hissed, “No more running off, Lada.” And, with that, he exited the house and would not return until the market was dismantled as the sun was disappearing.

That would be a long time from now, a fact that made Lada relax a little. But the relaxation was not to last: it was replaced by a feeling of sour obligation to her Matta, who would spend the day bossing her about and complaining about the state of things.

The toddlers eventually crawled out of their pallet on the floor and made their way to the hearth, where they clung to the hem of Lada’s tunic. They were cranky from being deprived of quality rest, and they whimpered and whined until their breakfast of lumpy cereal was served to them. Lada stirred in some of the berries Heka had sent, making the meal more appetizing with sweetness. The boys were somewhat placated after eating, and they occupied themselves while Lada cleaned the hearthroom.

Her Matta still slept soundly with the baby, so Lada did her best to keep the other children quiet. She kept a bowl of berries nearby and snacked on them while she watched the toddlers play. Her mind became bored watching two little boys clack little toys together, and Lada began to imagine, as she had countless times before, what her adult life would consist of. She assumed it would be not much different from now, for she was now merely an apprentice “wife,” as the courtyard people called their wermadn. Lada imagined being Selm’s wife, which made her grin; she was fond of Selm. But she was loath to think that she would do nothing but feed babies and clean up after them and an ungrateful Bahartr for the rest of her life, with no time for weaving or making pottery in the modir. She would much rather live like Matta Erua, Matta Heka, or Mattas Nansh and Mabal, who had maintained the old ways, Ma’s ways.

She remembered when things had begun to change, for though she was still quite young, it had not been so long ago. Nannum had not always lived with Lada and her Matta Niav. And Nannum had not always been so difficult. He had been loving, and even reverent, for his own Matta had been devoted to Ma. But Nannum had become enamored with eastern traders, dazzled by their colors and their customs. And Matta Niav followed Nannum in all he did. Soon, she had moved Nannum into her house, which had belonged to her own Matta, and now Nannum looked upon the house and everything inside it as his rightful property.

Lada was unsettled by and fearful of Nannum, though she rarely had to spend time with him since he spent his suns at the marketplace or in his brick field. But he was home for their evening meal, which was mostly consumed in silence, and after Lada had retired to her sleeping pallet she heard the rhythmic sounds of her Matta and Nannum having sex, Nannum making little to no attempt to be quiet. Lada sighed to herself to hear this, for it meant that her Matta may become with child again, but lately Lada took comfort that her Matta was presently less likely to get pregnant since she was nursing the baby. This was something she had learned from the Mattas.

Niav stirred in her sleeping skins, and the babe mewled. A sinking feeling settled in Lada’s heart when her Matta turned over and began to nurse the child, for soon her Matta would rise, cranky from fatigue, and spend the whole sun barking orders and being generally unpleasant.

The eldest of the two toddlers had been looped into a routine with his Matta. He knew how to rile her for her attention, negative though it was, so when he heard her stir into wakefulness, he began to nettle his brother and grin his insidious little grin. Like every other sun, Niav’s first words were, “Take him out of here!”

With liquid fluidity Lada scooped up the younger boy and settled him into his Matta’s sleeping bench; then, she bundled up the older boy, took him by the hand, and grabbed an empty water vessel as she whisked out of the back entry of the house.

The boy put up no fuss to go with his big sister, for he knew they would end up at the spring, and he liked it there. To Lada it seemed the further he got away from their house, the happier he became. He liked the wide open expanse they walked as much as he liked the closeness of the trees around the spring.

She hugged him to her. “Veles, why must you antagonize our Matta so?” She kissed the top of his head and looked at him. His eyes reflected innocence and his expression was one of unawareness. Lada smiled at him, and he smiled back.

“Look Veles!” Lada dipped her hand into the water. “When the cold comes, this will be hard. No water.”

He looked back and forth between her face and her hand in the water. “No water?”

“We will take a chunk of the hard water home, and it will become water.”

His little eyebrows furrowed furiously, and an expression of incredulity played about his mouth; but he discerned that she was teaching him something important, which she often did, so he resolved to believe her. He splashed his little hand down on the water and cried out, “Hard!”

They laughed to find themselves splashed with icy water. “No, Veles!” Lada giggled. “When the cold comes, the water will be hard.”

He could not fathom such a thing, but she assured him it was true.

She pulled her adamah from the little purse attached to her belt. She held it reverently and carefully, and she knew by Veles’s wide eyes that he understood that the object was sacred. She let him hold the little goddess, and when he handed it back to her she stroked it and looked at it for several moments. She knew now why Mattas have adamahs, and why it was important to have made her own. An adamah proves that each wermad is Ma, and that Ma is in each wermad. Lada smiled to think how difficult it had been for her to bring this particular adamah into being, even as making an adamah had seemed so easy for Hina. She lovingly wrapped the goddess in a piece of flax cloth Matta Heka had given her, and stored it back in her little purse.

Veles became occupied with splashing in the water, giving Lada’s mind an opportunity to reflect and wander. She looked over her shoulder at Mens, which, in its sprawling mass, was still partly visible through the trees that housed the spring. Fingers of smoke rose up from amidst the buildings and goat pens, mocking and beckoning. Lada felt a sinking feeling when she thought of the place; she was growing to hate it.

She liked it here by this spring, nestled in the trees. And separated from his Matta’s crowded house, Veles was playful and calm, content and affectionate. Veles’s rare smiles were meaningful to Lada. She took them to mean that these surroundings, so disparate from the cacophony of his home, was where he belonged; and, Lada felt she belonged here, too.

She whipped around at the sound of a light footfall behind her. She smiled widely to see that Erua had come to fetch water.

Erua squatted beside Lada, and smiled broadly at Veles. Veles, curious about this beautiful newcomer, came close to Lada with his eyes trained on Erua. He realized that she was not unfamiliar; he had seen her here before. So, he reached a chubby hand out to her and she took it inside her own.

“Matta, can I go to the forest with Ixi sometime? Can I disappear with Azul and Ista?”

“I’m sure Ixi would be glad to take you, young Matta.”

They stayed silent now, as they had several times before. They often met each other here, for, like Lada, Erua enjoyed the solitude of this place. The courtyard people shared a different water source they had dug from the ground, leaving the Mattas to enjoy this spring.

“I made you something,” Erua said, her hands diving into her satchel. “But, I fear it is the wrong thing for disappearing into the forest.”

She was right, but Lada’s heart leapt and her eyes widened like a pregnant moon when the red thing emerged from Erua’s sack. Erua held it out with both hands – a scarlet belt.

“Matta! Matta!” Lada now took it in her hands, her mouth agape.

Erua laughed and touched the red belt tied at her own waist. “Ha ha! You are no longer a child, sweet Lada. You are a little Matta.”

The red belt signified Lada’s allegiance to Ma and her Mattas, and, to Lada, it proved that she was an accepted and valued member of the group. She wiped a tear away and stood to remove her old belt, an old piece of horse leather to which she had stitched pieces of cloth to make it fit her circumference. She had been wearing some version of this belt since she was a small child, adding pieces to it as she grew.

But now she was grown, and she was glad to discard this relic in exchange for something colorful and meaningful.

Erua, holding onto Veles to keep him from slipping on the rocks, looked up at Lada admiringly. “You are lovely, Lada.”

Lada smiled and squatted next to Erua once more.

“Your smiles are always quick to disappear, little Matta,” Erua observed.

Lada stared forward expressionlessly. “I think of leaving Mens.”

“You wish to go away from your Matta, and from Nannum.”

“Yes. I do not want Niav’s life.”

Ensuing silence wrapped around both wermadn like a warm and comforting tapestry. They kept their eyes on the boy before them, and even he was quiet, content to follow playful birds with his eyes or look down at the black soil underneath his feet.

“Lada, you are not bound to your Matta’s life,” Erua said smoothly, as if she had just decided this during their silence.

“Nannum will want me to take a husband, like the courtyard people do.”

Lada was struck and disheartened that her expectations for encouragement were met by silence, and Erua shifted uncomfortably, looking uneasy.

“Matta?”

Erua looked at Lada, her face looking as if she had assumed a mask of determination though, underneath, was uncertainty and fear. But Erua squeezed Lada’s hand in hers and said, “Draw him out, Lada.”

Lada looked at Matta Erua with confusion, but Erua concentrated on filling her water vessel, then moved away and was gone.

Then, left with only Veles looking up at her expectantly, Lada’s sense of duty took over, and she filled her own water vessel, then scooped the child up and took him home.

Her Matta was at the hearth when Lada reentered. The baby was asleep and the infant was playing on the floor. Veles crawled into his sleeping skins again and went to sleep, content with his day’s adventure, but fatigued from the lack of sleep he suffered.

With the house quieter than usual, Matta Niav pulled her daughter to her for a long overdue discussion. She caught sight of the red belt and recoiled a little. “You will not wear the Mattas’ colors in the marketplace.”

Lada was careful about the belt. “No, Matta,” she muttered obediently. And she untied the belt and stowed it again in her satchel.

“Where were you on the last sun? What lured you away from the market where your Nannum needed you so much? What made you forget your duty to your family?” Niav hissed.

Lada’s eyes darted to the satchel, then back to her Matta’s face, which was like the surface of the water in Nanna Gedda’s dyeing pot, bubbles coming up quicker as the flames underneath the pot grew stronger. “The Mattas held a ceremony last sun. It was the Ceremony of the Oven.”

“Then, you have made your adamah? And the other girls have made theirs?”

Lada found her Matta’s nostalgic tone distasteful. She pushed it away like she would wave away stinking air. She straightened her back and answered, “Yes.”

Niav plunged a hand into her daughter’s satchel and produced the little linen bundle. In a moment, she had unwrapped the adamah and held it up to her eyes. It made Niav feel sick to see her precious goddess in the hands of the unfaithful, but she stayed still, thinking that her Matta’s sentimentality would pass quickly.

“I had one once,” Niav said. “I formed my adamah alongside your Mattas, you know.”

Her voice was soft, as it had once been. Lada recognized it from long ago, and now it was like an echo; Lada knew it would disappear.

“Have you had your moon blood?” Niav asked.

Again, Lada glanced at her satchel before she caught herself and retrained her eyes on her Matta. “No.”

Niav plunged her hand into the satchel again. She found the moonstick and brought it close to her face, examining it for marks as if she had not trusted Lada’s answer.

Niav paused for a long moment, looking back and forth between the two objects in her hands. Then, she returned the stick and began wrapping the adamah back into its cloth. When this was done, and the adamah had been replaced to the satchel, Niav sat down at the hearthroom table.

“Lada,” she said, “your life is now decided for you. You will marry a courtyard boy and have many children. Your husband and your sons will work alongside Nannum in the brick field and at the market.”

Lada sat down across from her Matta. Niav’s voice was not instructional, nor was it demanding. It sounded almost like Matta Heka’s, for it had a dreamy quality to it. Lada searched her Matta’s face, but Niav had turned her head to the side and downward, making it difficult for Lada to see.

“I envy your Matta Heka, Lada,” Niav said. Her voice choked on her daughter’s name, and Lada feared her Matta was crying until Niav looked at her straight on and continued, “But her path was not my path. And Heka is foolish to believe she can subvert the eastern traders. Their gods are powerful mountain gods who control the lightning and the rumbling in the heavens.”

Lada said nothing. She knew her words were wasted breath. She dragged the strap of her satchel across the table toward her, and when the sack was safely in her arms, she stood and left the house.

Her mind was full of memories at war. Her Matta’s unsavory predictions were stuck in Lada’s ear while Erua’s voice whispered, “Draw him out.” Then, memories of Selm, sitting silent in Heka’s sun drenched house combing fibers through a stone while the young sisters created their adamah, flooded her mind.

He had held her hand once, when they were walking to her house, and his touch had made her happy. But another memory soured this one: Lada had seen Selm’s father in the courtyard. He was a big man, quiet but strong, and his presence was particularly intimidating to Lada. And Selm seemed to cower in his father’s shadow.

“I am already too much like them,” thought Lada. “We both have fathers.” And she wondered if Selm would be like his father when he was older, and a husband.

And these ponderings Lada indulged brought understanding to Erua’s words: “Draw him out.”

“Draw him out,” she muttered to herself, pushing her way through the midsun crowd on the road to Matta Heka’s house, where she was always welcome.

And Lada grinned.

 

Chapter Nine: Pyrq

The traders had descried a southbound procession of women in the forest. It was a strange sight that seemed to cast a shadow over Pyrq’s father’s mood. Ahur’s head, usually bobbing confidently, visible at the front of the march, was now hanging, and hard to see from the back of the line. Around the fire at dusk Ahur hardly said any words to the group, and as a result everyone else also became reticent. Pyrq looked around at all the faces and found them solemn. He became solemn, too.

Ahur, looking haggard, went to his tent early that night, and soon most of the party had done the same. Eventually only Pyrq and his uncle Zakar were left looking into the flames and occasionally poking at the burning wood. Pyrq sensed that conversation was not welcome, and Zakar seemed deep in a reverie, so their voices remained unused for a long while.

Eventually, a deep rumble came from Zakar’s throat, a sound which grew into a song. It was a tune Pyrq remembered from his past, but so long ago that it now seemed like a dream. It had surely meant nothing to him as a young child, but now it stabbed at his heart.

 

“Akka, where are you?

You and your kind daughters

All came from sacred trees

And you danced with our moon.

We gave you our moon’s heart

Because you gave us life

And you gave paradise

in your divine temple.

 

Akka, where are you?

We are lost! Your daughters

Have disappeared from here.

Where once your magical

river flowed around us,

only dryness prevails.

We are not able to

see the light of your face.

Your daughters have left us.”

 

The song seemed to end abruptly with Zakar’s voice choking on the mournful words. Pyrq was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself: he was thinking that his mother’s version of this song was far longer than his uncle’s. His uncle now sat staring into the fire with his eyebrows crunched ferociously together, frustrated that he could not remember the rest of the song. He threw a stone into the flames with a, “Bah!”, and stalked off to his tent where he disappeared behind the flapping entryway. His snoring could be heard just a few moments later.

Pyrq was left alone by the fire. He dragged his horse skin out of his father’s tent and lay by the fire. He woke up chilled some time later that night; the fire had died down to embers while the moon shone fully above, and the stars over his head burned brightly, defined in the dark heavens. He realized he had been dreaming about the forest that hemmed the camp, and he suddenly felt as if a dozen feminine eyes were upon him. He pulled the skin up around his chin and dozed off once more, but the figures in his dreams haunted him still.

The conflict between his exhausted body and his overactive mind gave way to a restlessness he could not ignore. He finally stood up, letting his sleeping skin fall by the fire. He stomped off in the direction of the woods, stopping just at the tree line to piss. Hearing what sounded like many light footfalls beyond, he drew forward silently. He found a very small clearing, a circle of trees. Several women and men were there, dancing sensually, touching and feeling each other in the sparse moonlight that made its way to this clearing. The women were beautiful, but their boldness terrified Pyrq. He observed two women pawing at the same naked man; they seemed to be torturing him, for he was aroused and moaning. Another woman wrestled a man to the ground and climbed on top of him. Another couple, sitting under one tree, kissed each other with their eyes open; his hand was behind her head and her hands clasped his back as if they could not get close enough to one another.

And then Pyrq saw one young woman, alone, simply observing, wandering, not participating. Sometimes she squatted away from the people and just watched them with interest.

Though he tried to look away Pyrq found that his feet moved him to another vantage point, but he stayed hidden in the shadows of the trees and their undergrowth. The lone woman moved in his direction, having detected some life here in the darkness. She came straight toward him without hesitation or fear. He was startled, and he could not move. His eyebrows wove together in anger that he could feel afraid of a woman, but he had no time to respond to this resentment. She began to touch him in ways that he could not resist; she was powerful and without inhibition. His body was curious, rapt, and tortured all at once.

The darkness cloaked them both so that they could only see with their hands. She put his hands on her body until they became hungrily autonomous. His desire finally overtook him and he gave into it. He was inside her and it felt to him that all the feelings he had ever felt were converging at once. He longed to see her face, but the moon’s light was ungenerous. She did not contain her voice, which moaned and was ecstatic, wild. He felt almost as if he had a wild animal in his arms; he felt endangered. But his body knew what to do even if his brain was confused, and the longer they went on the harder it was for Pyrq to even feel his brain. These feelings she had aroused in him took on a life of their own, and they were stronger than what made him reluctant.

She undressed him, which left him standing naked in an unfamiliar forest. Exposed, his hand moved to try to cover himself, but she busied them with feeling her body: her breasts, her buttocks, her jawline which he cupped between his thumb and fingers, and her waist which he grasped to get better purchase of the entire woman. They found a rhythm and thrust until they reached satisfaction, after which he opened his eyes as if for the first time, and he saw her mouth spread into a smile though the rest of her face was still concealed in shadow.

Oh, she is happy, isn’t she? he thought. He suddenly felt robbed and foolish.

She tried to embrace him and stroke him and though her caresses felt comforting and natural, he pulled away, angry. He gathered up his clothes and stomped away. He heard her exclaim, “Wait!” in an unmistakable western dialect, but he carried on in the direction of the little light he descried, the traders’ dying fire.

He pulled his warm sleeping skins up to his chin and lay on his side looking into the fire, but he dared not close his eyes, for he would see only the woman in the forest and think of the encounter that had brought forth all the feelings he now grappled with.

But he must have fallen asleep in spite of himself for he woke with his uncle poking him with the toe of his sandal and grinning. Pyrq’s father was beyond Zakar, sitting relaxed and smoking a pipe. His father always seemed so far away and his uncle always seemed too close.

Pyrq rose and made for the tree line to urinate. He walked slowly so he could prolong his solitude.

To Pyrq’s relief the men had no questions for him. They simply went about their business packing up their camp and making their plans to move on. Had they no idea that the universe had changed overnight?

 

Chapter Ten: Heka

Hina’s clay goddess lay on the hearthside bench next to Heka, who picked her up and fondled her with deference. She had beautiful round eyes like Nanna Gedda’s goddess, which Hina so admired, but unlike Nanna Gedda’s, Hina’s goddess’ body was slender; she wore a carved grass skirt that was a symbol of the feminine mysteries, and was a kind of beckoning entry to her sacred Source.

Heka lay the goddess back on the bench beside her and leaned her elbows forward onto her knees, her arms crossing one another. This positioning put her farther into the circle Nanna Gedda, Nansh, Mabal, and Erua formed. It was a precious circle, for it was rare all of them were in the same place at the same time, especially since Nanna Gedda had gone to live in the forest. But now they were together while their children were all outside frolicking under a cloudy sky, though rain would eventually drive them indoors. Now, the apprehensive Mattas and their only Nanna were taking advantage of their moments together, for like the prescient clouds in the sky today, an imminence loomed.

“I am uneasy, Matta,” Heka said.

Nanna Gedda nodded slowly, understandingly, but did not move her eyes from the fire of the hearth. A long silence ensued.

Heka was now asking her Matta for help, but would she get it? So many times in her life Heka had been denied the help and the support Nanna Gedda had so freely given the other wermadn. When she was much younger, this had deeply saddened Heka, but as she grew older she couldn’t deny that it had made her stronger and more prepared for whatever this was that was coming.

“The time is coming,” Nanna Gedda’s voice rumbled, regretfully breaking the silence. Four pairs of eyes darted to her. The other wermadn had been hoping for her voice to unsilence itself, for they had no answers to the unprecedented problems before them.

Nanna continued. “You remember the old hunting camp at Mann.”

Four pairs of eyebrows now furrowed, though after a long silence that began to feel misplaced, Heka said, “Yes, we have heard of it, Matta.”

“Mann is our future. Mens is our past.”

Mabal’s girlish, disbelieving face darted back and forth searching her sisters’, but they all looked just as confused. “What is this? What! Nanna Gedda, you can’t mean for us to leave Mens.” Mabal was in great distress.

Erua put a calming hand on Mabal’s shoulder, but Mabal cried, “We would be abandoning Mens to the traders and the courtyard of foreigners who are only here because they abused the land from whence they came. They have no understanding of Ma. They will destroy this place, our home, just as they destroyed theirs.”

“These wermadn will not abandon Mens,” said Nanna. “These wermadn will not leave her without some connection to Ma.”

Heka now understood, for Nanna Gedda’s eyes carefully avoided her own. Nanna’s eyes looked at every other eye in the room except Heka’s, which now produced a single tear. The tear was wiped away as quickly as it came, and the other wermadn were none the wiser of Heka’s pain.

Heka tried to keep her eyes from the eastern window of the hearthroom, which she could reach out of and almost touch the outer wall of Nansh and Mabal’s house. To think of that house being empty, or occupied by some strangers, was too much for Heka to bear in this moment. She longed for the moon’s time when she would cry herself to sleep once her children were deep in their dreams.

When Heka finally spoke, saying, “I will stay,” the room became overwhelmed with sadness. Perhaps because she sensed she would be the target of the anger and despair all the wermadn now felt simply because she had solved their problem only to create another more emotionally wrought one, Nanna Gedda rose and slipped out the back door as the circle began to wail.

She settled herself on a bench outside that door and glanced up at the clouds, which were now beginning to release the tears they themselves had been holding in lo these many suns and moons. A splat of water landed on Nanna Gedda’s arm. She smeared the raindrop in a circular motion into her skin, slowly, slowly, slowly. The wermadn on the other side of the wall behind her at least knew better than to waste their time trying to find some other solution, but they carried on crying and mourning.

This went on for quite some time until the rain began to come faster, tapping noisily onto the house, onto the ground. The children came pouring out of the meadow laughing and running. They tumbled into the house and into their Mattas’ arms, but Hina stopped when she saw her Nanna sitting on the bench outside. Nanna took the child, who was really looking more and more like a wermad and less like a child now, into her arms. She buried her face in Hina’s hair, which looked and smelled so much like Heka’s. Nanna held her like that for many moments, and her precious little granddaughter was in no hurry to escape the embrace. In fact, Hina shifted a little bit to make herself more comfortable sitting with her Nanna enjoying a comforting cuddle even as the rain began to come a little harder. She kissed her Nanna on her cheek and rested her face on Nanna’s bony shoulder.

Nanna Gedda shivered a little, and Hina said, “Nanna, you are cold. Come sit at the hearth by my goddess.” So, they went into the house where Hina settled her Nanna in a place of honor by the hearth, and she put her little goddess in the old wermad’s hands.

Erua was serving everyone a piping restorative, and Hina was collecting skins and blankets to wrap her guests in. The hearth’s fire blazed and was comforting, but the Mattas were all unusually quiet even as their children chattered like so many birds.

The children began to beg to be told a story, so they looked expectantly at Nanna Gedda, for she was the renowned, supreme storyteller. But the Mattas still stayed silent, not asking her for a story nor looking in her direction. Still, the children implored her.

With Hina’s goddess still in her hands Nanna Gedda looked at each child, especially the burgeoning wermadn; then, her deep voice began: “Many, many moons in the past, after Ma had created wermadn and Bahartr, and children were abundant among them, there was a boy named Adamah. Adamah had been told, as you have, children, that a wermad becomes Ma during the time of her moon blood. She is never more powerful than when she is spilling forth the life blood from her Source. It is how Ma communes with us, and it is how she formed us to be like her, for it is Ma’s Sappur that created the world, forming rivers and springs, grottoes and ponds. They all sustain us.

“The boy Adamah decided he would make a clay goddess like the girls would do, and he determined he would smear his statuette with the very moon blood of Ma. At night, he stole into the houses of the budding wermadn and took their blood while they slept. He smeared his clay goddess with the blood and prayed to Ma, imploring Her to teach him the mysteries and give him the same power She gave the wermadn.

“But the bleeding wermadn and their Mattas found out he had taken their precious moon blood, and they were furious. They cast Adamah out of their village immediately and told him he was never allowed to return.

“But Ma intervened with her boundless wisdom. ‘My wermadn,’ She said, ‘This boy envies your beauty and your feminine powers. Can he be blamed for wanting to be more like us? For wanting to know the joys of being wermad? Do not cast him out. Take him in your arms and teach him the joys you know. Teach him ecstasy and how to create in his own way.’

“The wermadn were ashamed of their cruelty. They brought the boy back to the village, and henceforth he maintained a special place in the modir. He made beautiful homages to them and led prayers to Ma thanking Her for Her mercy and Her intelligence.

“Still, the wermadn felt violated that their life blood could be stolen, so they made a plan to abscond from the village during the time of their moon blood, their Sappur. They would found a Courtyard of Blood where only wermadn were welcome, and they would commune with almighty Ma among her trees and other creations. There in the Courtyard of Blood the wermadn would share and celebrate the secrets of their sex. Their daughters and their daughters’ daughters would find this place invigorating and inspiring. And best of all they would never be molested by male presence again.

“Ma looked down on Her wermadn and approved of their plan. She led them to a place in the forest and blessed them as they camped there.”

Cadda, who sat at her Matta’s feet with a sleeping skin on her shoulders, spoke: “Nanna, we call our statuettes adamah.”

Nanna corrected, “When you have had your Sappur, when you color your goddess with life blood, it is called adamah.”

“Nanna, can we go to the Courtyard of Blood for the adamah?” Tait chirped.

Nanna sighed. “The Courtyard of Blood is among the circle of sacred trees, our yoni grove. The path to the yoni grove is now grown over. Because of disuse it is no longer visible.”

All the Mattas hung their heads; all but Heka. Heka kept her eyes trained on Nanna Gedda. Nanna Gedda stared back.

Heka rose slowly, gracefully. “Let us all have our meal together this moon.”

With this, all the Mattas proclaimed what they would contribute to the meal and they scurried to their homes to retrieve food and brew. The house became like an anthill, with the Mattas sharing the hearth and ordering the children to fetch things.

After the meal the Mattas all dispersed, dragging their worn out children behind them. The girls would dream of the yoni grove tonight, that mysterious place their Mattas had spoken of that was the “gate of Ma’s source,” or the Courtyard of Blood where every wermad was free from the jealousy of the other sex.

Nanna Gedda lay the children down on their sleeping mats while Heka left to help Nansh and Mabal carry off some borrowed bowls and vessels. Nanna noticed Hina clutch her belly and wince once or twice as she scooted down onto her mat and pulled the sleeping skins up to her and Bara’s chins.

“Are you ill, my child?” Nanna asked.

“No, Nanna. Just some rumbling in my belly. It hurts a little, but not much.”

“Show me where,” Nanna said, offering her hand.

Hina put her Nanna’s hand on her lower belly. Nanna smiled and kissed Hina on the forehead. “You will dream many dreams tonight, young wermad.”

Hina smiled.

When Heka returned her Matta was sitting outside the entry to the house. Nanna disappeared inside when she saw her daughter approaching, and came back with a bowl of brew, which they shared sitting side-by-side on the log bench which moaned every time one of them passed the bowl to the other. They shared no words. When the brew was drained they went inside and went to sleep, Heka on her bench beneath dear Aki’s skull and Nanna on a sleeping mat she always carried with her. Both of them lay awake for some time listening for the other’s hard, regular breathing or snoring that sleep brought. Finally, sleep took the both of them silently and without warning.

 

Chapter Eleven: Ahur

Pyrq had become expert in setting up the traders’ booths where Zakar would cunningly display their merchandise. The boy could now assemble their booth quickly and with an alacrity his father observed was admired by many a young woman. Pyrq was not as tall as his father or his uncle, but he had a handsome face, if somewhat surly, and his physique had only grown more chiseled after being on the routes with his father’s band of traders. In several villages adolescent girls would sometimes gather together nearby to whisper and point at Pyrq.

Nevertheless, Pyrq showed nothing but disdain for those village girls. Ahur had never known Pyrq to be especially unfriendly, but on this trip he had become downright brooding. ‘No matter,’ Ahur thought as he watched his son and puffed his pipe. ‘We are homeward bound where his mother will set things right.’ The thought of reuniting with Febeq made Ahur smile, and customers were so attracted to his ebullience that they gathered around his booth like his own children had been drawn to the sweet bee syrup he sometimes procured from his less traveled northern routes.

The traders were now within a day and a half’s walk from the Village of the Bael, which meant, if the band kept a quick pace, Ahur could be sitting comfortably at his own table being served by the lovely hands of his wife and daughter at this time on the morrow. The thought of home and his wife had greatly tempted Ahur to skip this stop on his routes, but Ahur had friends in this village and always did fine business here, so he coerced his patience. Also, this place was the home of very fine wool spinners and weavers, and since Ahur had not been able to procure Febeq’s favorite dyed cloth in Mens, he determined to compensate for it here.

Soon after the little crowd had gathered around Ahur’s booth a tall, swarthy man approached. It was Noah. Ahur’s eyes crinkled when he saw his friend, and Noah raised his hand above the throng in greeting.

“I’ll come to your fire tonight, Ahur!” Noah called.

Ahur smiled and nodded, but he was troubled by Noah’s serious expression. Where Noah was usually jovial, he now emitted gloominess. Ahur excused it, thinking he had misread his old friend’s demeanor in the chaos of the marketplace, but the dread saturated his heart again when Noah appeared out of the darkness around the traders’ fire that night looking haggard, as if he carried a weight around his neck.

He did not smile as he lowered himself down to the ground beside the fire. The other men greeted him warmly, for Noah had always been an interesting and interested person. He was more widely traveled than most. His homeland was in the South, but he settled here long ago. He had once been a trader himself; now he raised sheep and his wife and daughters spun wool and made cloth on their large looms.

“I hear rumors about the Village of the Bael, Ahur. There has been unrest there,” Noah reported.

Ahur shifted forward and put his pipe down, curious and disquieted. Pyrq sat down nearby, breaking from the restless pacing he had recently habitualized.

“What has happened, friend?” Zakar asked.

“Your Bael has forbidden the women to congregate. There was a ceremony during which he chose some girls. It is not clear for what they were chosen, but there seems to be fear growing among your people.”

Ahur relaxed somewhat, for this was not news; fear had been growing for some time, and Ahur and Febeq had discussed it at length during the night when their children were sleeping. But Pyrq squirmed upon hearing Noah’s news. He looked back and forth between his father and Noah, but stayed silent. Ahur sank into a dark reverie. His face crinkled and he crossed his arms.

Zakar said in a monotone, “We should leave before dawn. We can get back home by midday if we go quickly.”

Ahur knew that was wishful thinking. They would probably reach the village by just before sundown, even if they hurried, but he said nothing. He just nodded a little to show his brother that he agreed.

“Noah, we are grateful for your friendship. Thank you.”

Noah spread his lips into a smile, but his eyes were still worried and his brows were still knitted tightly. “My family and I will always welcome the sight of you, Ahur…Zakar…all of you.”

“You have not met my son! This is Pyrq, Noah.”

“What a fine son you have, Ahur. You are certainly a blessed man. You are a fine man. Pyrq, I’m grateful to lay eyes on you. Your father has spoken of you often.”

“Thank you,” Pyrq muttered.

Noah continued, “I remember that the Bael’s wife died some time ago. Perhaps he is choosing a new wife from the girls of your village.”

“No,” Pyrq said defensively, “The Bael will take another wife from the East.”

No one said anything now; they just stared into the flames while palpable disquiet hung in the air.

Ahur was anxious to change the subject, so he asked Noah, “Friend, how is your lovely family? And is your business doing well?”

Noah grinned gratefully. “My wife and daughters are hard workers. My wife is a gem among women, for she has taught our children to spin wool quickly and with high quality. We have been able to keep production high with two more pairs of hands, and our supply is rarely low.”

“I must take some of your cloth back with me, for, as you know, my wife likes it very much. She will not look kindly on my returning without some,” Ahur smiled.

“Come to me early, then, in the morning before you away. You shall have your choice of cloth for your wife.” And he rose to go, touching Ahur on the shoulder before disappearing into the night.

 

Chapter Twelve: Heka

When the sun was nascent the next morning, Heka stirred into consciousness to the aroma of an ancient brew which, to her, meant Matta. Nanna Gedda was sitting beside Heka on Heka’s sleeping bench with a bowl in her hands; she offered it to Heka, who scooted herself upright and accepted the bowl. It was a strong but irresistible brew Heka remembered had fortifying effects.

“I brewed some extra. Share it with the children,” Nanna instructed.

Heka now saw that Nanna Gedda was dressed for travel again. Her satchel was slung across her chest, she wore her rope sandals and a shawl around her shoulders.

“You are leaving,” Heka said.

“Daughter, do you remember the way to the yoni grove?”

Heka wanted to say, “How could I forget it, Matta?” but she stopped herself. Asking this would only provoke the question, “But haven’t you?” Heka felt ashamed, so she just answered, “Yes.”

“Meet this wermad there this moon. Bring the other Mattas, and all the girls. Even Lada.”

The old wermad didn’t allow a moment for her daughter to ask questions or be surprised. She whisked out of the door into the dawn, gone like the rain that had pattered through the night.

A ray of light had found its way through the buildings across the road from Heka’s house, and was breaking into the room where she and her daughters slept and becoming brighter with every passing moment. Heka wrapped herself in a shawl and took her bowl into the hearthroom. Nanna had thoughtfully left the hearth burning, therefore Heka had a difficult time staying displeased with her Matta. She enjoyed this cozy, lonely moment, snuggled up by her homey hearth sipping the brew and thinking nostalgically. Nanna had brewed it for herself and Matta Aki when Heka was a young girl; then, after Heka’s Sappur, she was invited to taste it. Henceforth, the three of them and Hebe would drink this elixir when there were ten moons until their Sappur.

Heka and Matta Aki made regular trips to the forest to collect the leaves, roots, and sometimes flowers for this special brew, and Heka learned how to best divide the portions of the collected leaves so that they dried quickly and correctly. The roots would be boiled to make a divine broth to which the dried leaves were added. Matta Aki claimed that the brew was at its highest potency when she was able to add the flowers that carpeted the yoni grove in the rainy season.

The brew relaxed the wermadn’s female organs and lessened the tenderness of the Sappur, but Heka felt nothing was more effective for mitigating the discomfort of a Sappur than spending this precious time with her Mattas. She drank the brew nearly every sunup during their Sappur, sitting close to Matta Aki and Matta Gedda, feeling that she had been accepted into a wonderful and mysterious society. During their Sappur Matta Aki had often reminded Heka and Hebe that “wermadn are the envy of the world, and for that reason we must congregate and lead.” And she was correct; when they stayed together they were strong and comforted, especially at the time of Sappur when their bodies offered blood to prove that they are life-givers.

Heka glanced toward the door and spied her moonstick in its spot. It appeared to be untouched since last night when she made her nightly mark, but Nanna Gedda must have observed it and ascertained that Heka’s Sappur was on its way, for why else would she make the Sappur brew? Then again, this brew was also known to be a tonic for older wermadn like Nanna who no longer experienced a Sappur.

Bitterness found its way onto Heka’s tongue and tainted her memories when she thought about how she had failed her Matta. After Aki’s death Nanna Gedda had left the village to live in the forest, awash in her own personal despair and grief. She and Aki had taught Heka many things she would need to lead the wermadn of Mens and keep them close to Ma, but neither Gedda nor Aki had anticipated the flood of people who would descend upon Mens and disturb the traditions the wermadn had held for generations. A few of the new people honored and worshiped Ma, but most of them did not. Heka quickly found herself and her wermadn outnumbered, and it was difficult to maintain trips to the yoni grove and worship ceremonies. Once, the courtyard had supplied a place where the whole village could congregate and worship, but now it was full of blind corners and walls. Heka could no longer see.

Eventually, the best Heka and her sisters could do is keep to themselves and teach their children as many of the old ways as they could remember, for no one in the village consulted the wise wermadn anymore. The world seemed to be going on without them, completely unconcerned with their point of view. Most of Mens’s citizens were occupied with raising goats and sheep or farming and grinding Hebe’s cereals. They stayed busy with work all day every day, leaving the Mattas sitting leisurely in their doorways pondering this new, bustling, hurried way of life. The Mattas’ days were not non-stop. They took long midday naps when it was too warm to be outside, and spent much time joyfully making the most beautiful cloth and vessels in the village. The beautiful cloth of their tunics, sometimes expertly dyed with the forest’s colors, stood out among the other citizens of Mens and identified the Mattas as Ma’s worshipers. For they did all things slowly, praying and worshiping as they went. They enjoyed their lives and were not in the habit of rising early to work tirelessly all day long. They woke only with the intent to create and worship, which were one in the same to the Mattas.

This particular morning Bara was the earlier riser of Heka’s two daughters, walking into the hearthroom rubbing her eyes and dragging her sleeping skin on the floor while Hina barely stirred in hers. Bara shrugged the skin up to her shoulders and used one hand to clasp it together at her throat while the other poured Nanna’s brew into a bowl. She came to sit beside her Matta, but she craned her neck and looked over each shoulder.

“What is this brew? Is Nanna Gedda gone, Matta?”

“Yes, Bara. But you will see her this moon. For we are all going to the yoni grove.”

Bara smiled. “The yoni grove? Oh, Matta! The yoni grove! But do you know the way?”

The question made Heka bristle. “Yes,” was all she could answer.

She put Bara to work making their morning meal. By now it was light outside, so Heka left to spread the word about their journey to the yoni grove among the Mattas. When she returned Hina was helping Bara pack provisions they would need for their journey. While Bara skipped about and chirped incessantly, Hina was quiet and her feet shuffled. Heka observed her eldest child with curiosity, but she did not ask Hina any questions; she just poured more brew into Hina’s bowl.

“I like this brew,” Hina said weakly. And Heka pulled the girl close and stroked her forehead.

After they had eaten their meal Heka said, “Hina, go and fetch Lada. Make sure she is prepared to travel, but don’t bother telling Matta Niav where we are going. Just bring Lada.”

Bara, with her abounding energy, was put to work outside washing the bowls from their morning repast. She hummed while she scrubbed.

Nansh and Mabal entered the house then, and they drew toward their sister without words. Cadda and Pana trailed their Mattas, Cadda with her characteristic composure and Pana with her silent footfalls. The girls disappeared out the back toward Bara’s pretty humming.

Nansh, Mabal, and Heka embraced, and instead of letting them pull apart Heka held them there, her hands on the napes of their necks, touching her forehead to theirs. A tear ran down Mabal’s face and spattered on the floor at their feet. Nansh brushed her sister’s face with her thumb. Heka broke apart from them to serve them the last drops of Nanna’s brew.

Nansh’s soft, deep voice came slowly as she pulled the bowl away from her lips and handed it to Mabal. “Nanna Aki used to give us this brew during our Sappurs. Remember, Matta Mabal?”

Mabal closed her eyes and held the liquid in her mouth for several moments. She did remember.

“I have failed,” Heka said.

Nansh put her hand on Heka’s.

“I have disappointed Nanna Gedda here in Mens,” Heka continued. “I have lost Niav, just as I lost Hebe so long ago.”

“You take this burden on alone, Matta? We have been with you. Perhaps it is we who have failed,” Nansh said.

“Perhaps it was Niav who failed. And Hebe who failed before Niav,” Mabal said bitterly. And the wermadn were silent for several moments after that.

Hina came in not long after that with Lada, whose face looked bright and ready. Hers was a pretty face that did not allow its viewers to be sad. Nansh drew Lada to her and held her.

Erua and Tait arrived, both of them with strange little vessels looped into their belts. The vessels were strangely familiar to Heka, and a memory poked her sharply and left a little wound of sadness, a disappointment in herself that here was yet another tradition she had not kept alive.

Hina and Lada gathered around Tait and fingered the little vessel with great curiosity. Erua leaned down toward them. “These are the Lun Ma vessels,” she said. She patted the one on her own belt: “This one belonged to my Matta Wedda.”

And the girls all begged to know what Lun Ma was, and what were these small vessels that looked almost like little pitchers to be used for? But the mystery was to remain for the moment, for the journey to the yoni grove could not wait.

“Let us away!” Mabal said, and everyone stood up, gathered their things and the other girls out back, and departed from Heka’s house.

In the commotion of the wermadn and the girls leaving the house Erua took Heka by the arm and held her back. When they stood alone in the hearthroom Erua said, “Your Lun Ma.”

Heka looked into Erua’s eyes, trying to find her words’ meaning and a memory there. It finally came to her and a look of epiphany overtook Heka’s countenance. She whisked around and reached up toward the highest shelf of the hearth room. She couldn’t reach it. Erua scooted a bench over and Heka climbed onto it, reaching for a forgotten vessel that had been pushed to the back of the high shelf. She unlidded it and removed some of its contents, depositing them into a piece of cloth which she put in the satchel that hung from her shoulder. She stood for a moment looking up at the vessel and felt ashamed at her remissness.

Erua took Heka’s hand and smiled a smile Heka remembered from their girlhood. She let the light feeling of carelessness and jocularity she had known so abundantly in her youth wash over her. With Erua’s hand in hers, pulling her in the direction of the forest beyond the village, Heka felt like a bird taking flight from the ground. Erua would laugh to know that a foolish trader’s brew had been spiked with this Lun Ma several moons ago. The memory made Heka laugh. The tradition of Lun Ma had not completely died, after all.

She was glad to have her sisters beside her just in case she second-guessed herself on the route to the yoni grove, which snaked deeply into the forest to the south. She had not been there since before Hina was born, though sometimes she had thought of it. She had been to parts of the forest frequently, but she was just now realizing, as she heard the bleating of Mens’s goats becoming fainter and fainter with each step, she had not traveled far enough away from the village. She had not gone deep enough into the forest. She had let the forest become an estranged friend she mostly just heard about from Ixi.

She was ashamed more than ever now, and resolved to teach her daughters how to avoid her own mistakes. She must lead Hina and Bara into a deeper communion with Ma.

The warmest period was now concluding and the leaves of the trees were now turning the colors of hearth fire and the setting sun. The wermadn’s walk was a challenging one with their packs on their backs and the sun blazing overhead, reluctant to surrender its reign to the cold that would soon be upon the world. Heka, Nansh, Mabal and their children had always defeated the cold by living all together in the cold season. They would sleep around Heka’s hearth and take turns stoking it, keeping it burning all night. Now that tradition the Mattas had known even as girls themselves would come to an end, and Heka silently lamented that Hina, Bara, Ista, Cadda, and Pana would see the end of this long-held tradition that had started even before Nannas Gedda, Panlat, Wedda, and Aki. But, no, they would not see the end of it entirely; the others would just see the end of it with Heka and her daughters, who would stay behind in Mens. Space and time would separate them and distance them from each other. Mann would become a satellite of Heka herself, with pieces of her living there, away from her physical body.

But Heka could not think of loss right now. She put her foot on a grassy spot, then on a rock, then on a tree’s root, then on another grassy spot on the forest floor. Every step brought her closer to the yoni grove where her Matta would be waiting. Heka could not recover Hebe, nor Niav, but she could revive the traditions that had been lost, and lead her children to a deeper understanding of Ma. It would be hard to do living in the chaos that had overtaken Mens, but she was determined. She touched her satchel as she contemplated this and thought of the secret she carried there that had been mostly forgotten on a high shelf for so long. She smiled a little.

More than once she shared a glance with Nansh and Mabal; they all needed reassurance they were going the right way. When one’s memory waivered another’s memory served, and eventually they found themselves standing on the edge of the yoni grove. It was well after midday, and the setting sun drenched the trees in yellow.

Heka moved forward, passing through the others. She let her satchel fall from her shoulder, her hand extended out before her to touch the white bark of a yoni tree. She wanted to fall down and cry, but she held her emotions in check, for this ceremony was about the unity of the wermadn, and her tears would only distract the group from its purpose. She felt Mabal at her side, and Heka hoped her friend would not touch her, for then she would surely lose all composure. They stood with their hands on the yoni tree, then the sound of Bara’s and Tait’s laughter brought the wermadn’s memories to a close.

The young girls ran to the center of the yoni grove and began to dance and play. Hina and Cadda walked in the wake of the playful sisters, but with reverence, as if the yoni grove was part of their own memories, too. And, indeed, it was. They had heard about the white trees and the golden light, and they had been told about the magic that would happen here. It had happened to their own Mattas.

Heka saw Pana inspecting the outskirts of the tree ring. She would crouch to meet a plant and respectfully stroke its leaves. She was communing with these plants, for she was encountering them for the first time; Pana had never travelled this far outside of Mens. Heka thought how very proud Nanna Panlat would be of her granddaughter, and of Nansh who had been so devoted to Pana’s education and to nurturing the child’s obvious gift. Heka thought how very useful Pana would be to the pilgrims of Mann. She would become their healer; she would perhaps become an even greater healer than her Nanna.

Hina sang out, “Nanna!” And the other girls looked up to see Nanna Gedda coming out of the woods where she had, no doubt, been listening for them. Hina, who was almost as tall as her Nanna now, threw her arms around that wermad. Nanna hugged her grandchild, then pushed back to examine her. She looked her up and down and asked Hina a string of questions that were inaudible to Heka. She saw Hina touch her belly.

Heka came close to Nanna and Hina, and Nanna reached out for her daughter. She kissed her, then they got busy unpacking their satchels. When Nanna was called away to help Mabal confirm where the fire pit had once been, she left her half-unpacked satchel hanging open. Inside, Heka noticed, was a very strange vessel that was shaped like the horned moon. Heka’s breath caught, for this vessel triggered a flood of memories that stormed her brain. The image of her moonstick came into her mind, then of the Sappur brew. “Share it with the children,” Nanna had said that morning. And Hina had behaved strangely earlier, holding her belly and moving slowly. Heka had been dense and sightless, but now she was coming to an understanding that almost knocked her over. She almost lost her balance as she squatted there, but she finally reminded herself to breathe again and she now put both her hands on the ground to stabilize.

Now her Matta was at her side again. Nanna sat on the ground and put her hands on Heka’s cheeks. She wore a reassuring look on her face; it was the kind face that had been so abundant for Heka in her childhood. But now it did not comfort Heka, for the presence of the horned vessel burdened her. She sensed that she was in for more disappointment, more loss.

To hide her distress she busied herself preparing food. She joined the other Mattas around the fire that Mabal had now launched using dried dung she and Pana had collected from some goat farmers before they left Mens. The other Mattas’ chattering drew attention away from Heka’s silence.

Erua and Mabal pulled apart to make room for Nanna Gedda, who now came with a leaf packet of the ingredients for her brew. Hina was behind her holding a vessel of water from the nearby spring. They brought the water to a boil and added the mixture; in a few moments the aroma Heka had awoken to earlier that morning was wafting around the wermadn like a phantom embrace.

Now, when the scent entered Heka’s nostrils and glided into her brain, she understood. And with this new comprehension she had to look away from lovely Hina, for it pained Heka to look upon her daughter who would soon be lost to her.

The wermadn and the children ate, the Mattas still reliving their memories of the yoni grove and their daughters sitting rapt and hopeful that their own experiences would be as magical. All the while Heka sat dissatisfied in her silence. She was becoming an observer, tearing away from the tableau before her. If she allowed her connections to her family to become weak, she would surely sink in loneliness in Mens. And she had much work to do, much redeeming to do.

She locked eyes with Erua, who grinned and hoisted herself up from her repose on the now dewy grass. Erua and Heka met at the fire, Erua carrying a water vessel and a clay pot that she would boil water in, and Heka with the ancient surprise in her hand. They knelt by the fire, which was burning low, and began the ritual.

Erua arranged the pot over the fire and quickly poured water into it. Heka took this opportunity to look around and take in the scene before it morphed into something else. She saw Nanna sitting with Hina and Cadda, two who were always curious, always attentive, and whose eyes were fixed on Heka and Erua. Heka suppressed a small pang of despair, for these two enthralled, serious side-by-side faces seemed prescient of something that would be at once joyful and sorrowful for Heka. The girls were studying.

Ghostly steam began to rise from the water, so Heka began to unwrap the piece of cloth she held in her hand. Inside was a chunky mixture of dried leaves. Heka rested on her heels and waited patiently and motionlessly for the water to be ready. When it boiled she added the entirety of the dry brew, and as she did so she murmured, “Ma, we come to your arms to be embraced. Ma, we beg you to enter our bodies and show us your heart.”

Erua stood, tall over the glow of the fire, and her beauty was arresting to Heka, who looked up at her with gratitude. They connected their hands and Erua drew Heka up. She embraced her lovingly, then they parted to walk around the fire in circles. The others were completely silent, for the Mattas were reverent, pained with nostalgia and burdened with their guilt that it had been so long since this ceremony had been performed. But their daughters, so unfamiliar with their Mattas’ choreography, watched with unwavering attention. The girls were held in suspense and forgot about everything else in the world in this moment; now there was only their Mattas and Ma, and themselves trying by any means necessary to hear Ma’s voice. They believed their Mattas knew how to make that magic happen so they watched unblinkingly.

Now Erua disrobed, her tunic falling away like a second skin that had hidden her true beauty. Heka followed, and she reveled in the warmth of the fire on the front of her body while the moon’s light bathed her back. She turned to look up at the moon, and she stood like that, worshiping, for several moments. But then a wonderful pungency filled her nostrils, so she turned back to the fire where Erua was preparing to remove the pot of brew from the fire. She did so, and Heka stoked the fire and added some sticks the wermadn had gathered from the forest floor on their walk to this place. The fire grew taller now and cast its long fingers outward.

Erua gestured to Tait, who promptly brought the two small pitcher-like vessels they had carried to the grove on their belts. Erua transferred the piping brew to these vessels to cool, and after a few moments during which she chanted, “Ma, show us your heart. Ma, show us your heart,” she served Heka, then Heka served Erua. Then, they alternated serving the group. First they took the drinking pitcher to Nanna, who stood and disrobed, saying, “Ma, enter this wermad’s body and show this wermad your heart.” She took the bowl from her daughter and took a short sip.

Nanna turned to Hina, who knew to stand and be served by her Matta Erua. Without hesitation Hina liberated her body from her tunic, and she took the vessel from Erua. Hina chanted, “Ma, enter this wermad’s body and show me your heart.” It was the first time she had called herself wermad.

Heka whispered, “A very small sip, child,” and she smiled as Hina screwed up her face upon tasting the acrid brew. But Hina’s face instantly became composed again, and she stepped back a little as the servers moved on to offer Cadda their brew.

Only Bara and Tait would not partake of this brew, for their Sappur was not upon them just yet. Still, they watched with interest while all the Mattas and all the other girls were served and the empty pots were finally returned to their place by the fire.

Mabal now came forward, and she led the Mattas in a dance the girls joined after a short observation. Heka felt her body becoming light, and she feared momentarily that she would float away, unable to anchor herself to the others. She clasped Nansh’s hand so that her body would not lift off the ground and be whisked away from the beauty around her.

“Ma, enter this wermad’s body and show me your heart” was in Heka’s ear, and in her memory. “Show me your heart…show me your heart…show me your heart…showm ee your heart…shomeeyrhrt…shshshowm… eee…your heart…yrhrt…yrhrt..”

These sounds were on everybody’s lips. Heka even found that the sounds were coming from her own mouth, and she touched her fingertips to her lips. She laughed. She felt like dancing. She found Erua and kissed her, then the two of them capered and danced. They felt the joy of life and of being a sacred part of the world. They felt joyful Ma entering their brains and making them conscious of things they were otherwise blind and deaf to.

Eventually Heka’s attention was drawn to some joyful commotion in the middle of the dancing. She saw Nanna Gedda pushing through the wermadn’s naked bodies with something in her hand; Heka could not discern what it was.

Heka crept forward, almost fearful of what she would see, even though nothing but euphoria was in the air and on the faces around her. She examined each smiling face as she passed through the little throng. Mabal’s smile was accompanied by eyes that expressed relief, and it was as if she had exhaled after holding her breath for many moons. She touched Heka’s shoulder, then her face, always looking at her with those relieved eyes.

Now Heka could see that Nanna Gedda held the horned moon vessel, and she was moving toward Hina, who stood looking dumbfounded. There was blood on the girl’s inner thighs and on her fingertips. Cadda came forward with Hina’s little clay goddess and Hina, reaching down between her legs to dip her fingers into the source of her bleeding, smeared the statuette with her Sappur. The two girls hugged and Cadda pulled away to join the dance, which was resuming now with renewed energy, and Heka could see that Cadda now wore some of Hina’s blood.

Heka stepped back nearer to the shadows that surrounded them. She could not look at Nanna Gedda, who held the vessel between Hina’s legs to collect the sacred life blood. The moon was full and it and the fire provided too much light. Everything was clear now. Heka curled up under a tree and went to sleep. When she woke someone had covered her with a blanket, her tunic was folded neatly nearby, and Nansh was sleeping next to her.

It was still the moon’s time, but the frenzy had ended. Everyone slept.

Except one. Nanna Gedda sat upright next to the fire. Heka went to her. Nanna offered her daughter a bowl of water, which Heka promptly drained.

Once again words between these two wermadn were superfluous, but they came out of Heka’s mouth as a means of confirmation, of finality. “Hina will go to Mann.”

“Hina will be Mann,” Nanna responded. “Ma has given Hina her Sappur on a round moon in the lost yoni grove, the Courtyard of Blood. Of Life. Hina is chosen.”

“And Bara?”

“Bara will be with her sister.”

“And Ista?”

Nanna paused now and looked away. “Ista is already there.”

Heka began to weep quietly. She did not want to wake her sisters and call attention to herself, for her time was passing. The time of Mens was passing.

Nanna Gedda came to Heka and held her. Nanna Gedda’s face became streaked with tears, too, though she did not make a sound.

But finally Nanna Gedda pulled away and looked into Heka’s face. “Daughter, you have much to do. You have much to learn.” And Heka considered inwardly that perhaps, after all, her time was not over.

“You leave me to whither in Mens, Matta,” Heka cried.

“You are like the color plants that grow out of dung. Are those not the most useful buds? Are those not the most beautiful because they are born from filth? Doesn’t dear Nansh seek out those petals very particularly at the beginning of the rainy season to put in her most beautiful brew? And of all her tonics is that brew not the most potent? The most powerful?”

The two of them sat not talking for the next few moments. Finally, Nanna walked Heka back to her sleeping spot, dressed her in her tunic, and tucked her under her blanket. Nanna stationed herself next to her daughter until Heka was asleep.

 

Chapter Thirteen: Hina

The morning was chilly and misty. Fog covered the yoni grove so that Heka could barely make her way to the fire pit. She arranged the sticks, which had been stacked by the pit and covered with a skin to keep them dry, and worked to get a fire going. In spite of the dampness an ember or two of the previous night’s fire remained, and before long Heka had revived a welcoming blaze. She squatted, looking into the flames, meditating and reflecting on the events of the night before.

Gradually, each wermad came out of the mist to gather by the fire. Cadda began to make a meal for the group. She and Pana had collected berries on the journey to the yoni grove, and they served them with a nut paste Heka made. As the wermadn ate, their hands became stained with the berries. They began to laugh, for their hands looked bloody, causing them to think back to the night before when Ma had given them answers in lifeblood. Someone suggested they wash in the nearby spring before heading back to Mens.

Hina was glad to see the wermadn splashing in the water, their spirits high before they were due to return to Mens where they would prepare to leave it behind them. Their frivolity inspired Hina, for she felt there should be more of this joviality in their lives, and, for the first time, the thought of leaving Mens felt like becoming unfettered. But leaving Matta Heka there, bound as she was, weighed on Hina, especially as she observed her Matta, who sat smiling sadly on a rock some distance from the playful wermadn and their children.

Nanna and Cadda came to Hina’s side. Nanna said, “Shall we go to Mann, little Matta? It is not far from here.”

Hina wanted to grin, for the thought of seeing Mann excited her, but she found it very difficult to ignore her grief completely. She could barely take her eyes off her Matta. “These wermadn shall go to Mann, Nanna. Cadda, will you join us?”

Cadda answered, “Yes.”

Later, when the wermadn were packing up their belongings, Heka said to Hina, “Is Nanna Gedda taking you to Mann?”

“Yes,” answered Hina.

Heka touched Hina’s lower belly. “Are you in discomfort?”

Hina shook her head.

Heka took Hina in her arms and squeezed her. Hina held her Matta tightly in reciprocation and they remained locked for many silent moments. Finally, Heka released her daughter, saying, “I love you, my heart, Matta Hina. I feel such pride. I am always with you.” And she fell in line with the Mens-bound wermadn and daughters.

They disappeared into the forest in a matter of moments, and Hina, Nanna, and Cadda were left in the yoni grove, where a slight breeze was blowing through the sun-kissed trees’ leaves. A few of the golden leaves showered the three wermadn, floating downward as if they were in no hurry to meet the ground. Hina’s throat burned painfully, but she took strength from Cadda, who merely hoisted up the satchel on her shoulder to make it more comfortable for the next leg of their journey. Her movement said, ‘It’s time to go forward,’ and Hina was grateful for the message. Hina pulled her own satchel up to her shoulder and looked to Nanna Gedda, who smiled and walked westward.

 

 

The journey to Mann was a lengthy one because Nanna insisted on stopping several times to pick berries, collect nuts, and find greens. Hina and Cadda did not ask questions; they did as they were told. But it did not escape their notice that they had collected enough food for far more than just the three of them.

When they finally reached the camp, Hina barely knew they were there. It was an unremarkable place, but there was a small fire being kept in the space between two ramshackle buildings. The buildings still stood proudly, if neglected. Their thatched rooves had disappeared, but their walls and their stone slab floors remained. This was at least the case for the one Hina and Cadda inspected timidly, peering inside the first building they came to.

Hina looked all around her, taking in the dearth of buildings, which was so different from the place Mens had become, and the accessibility of what could be the courtyard of Mann. It was presently merely a camp’s fire pit, but she imagined it becoming the central feature of Mann – a place to hold celebrations and perform rituals that would bring her and her people ever near to Ma. In Nanna’s youth, her people created this camp for transient hunters tracking red and roe deer and aurochs. They would have spent several moons here as the animals migrated here and there. Now, Mann would become an even more important place for Ma’s people.

To Hina’s and Cadda’s great surprise, from the second building came Ixi! And Ista and Azul! They all shared embraces, then Nanna invited them to sit around a fire, for the sun was descending, leaving a chill behind. The wermadn produced food from their satchels, and everyone ate until they were content.

Ista brought out some little twigs he had collected in the forest, a sharp blade, and a heavy piece of tree he used to hit the blade. He cut the twigs to the length he wanted, and then carved a notch in one. These Hina recognized as spinning instruments, and she felt comforted that Ista had learned so much from his time with Ixi. While Ista worked, Ixi squeezed his own spindle between his knees and began to spin some furry fibers onto string he had previously begun. Perhaps it was the same string he had put into Ista’s hands on a moon that, to Hina, seemed very long ago. Cadda moved close to Ixi and, finding his collection of tangled fur, began to pull it apart and make the fibers go in the same direction, thereby preparing it to be spun. Ixi smiled approvingly at Cadda.

Ista and Azul took out spools of their string and tied it to stakes surrounding the fire, forming a fence from which they hung pieces of broken pottery that would clatter and alert them if an animal invaded their camp while they slept.

Hina and Ista rolled their sleeping mats out adjacent to one another. They lay down under the starry sky and stared upward.

“Ixi says you are to be an important person in the new village,” Ista said.

Hina asked a question to which she already knew the response: “And how does Ixi know that?”

“Nanna Gedda told him.”

There was a long silence. Then, Hina asked, “Ista, what else does Ixi say?”

“He says that Bara and I will be by your side, but that Matta will stay in Mens.”

Hearing these words out of young Ista’s mouth stabbed at Hina. She lay silent for a long time, and though she was quite tired, she did not find sleep immediately, even after Ista had. The boy lay peacefully on his back, his nose pointed up to the stars like the tip of a hunting spear.

Hina felt a tightness in her chest. Here she lay under an open sky in this clearing far into the forest, but when she thought of Nanna Gedda she felt her choice to be here was not her own. Nanna Gedda was like a strong and silent wind that sails in close to the forest floor and scatters leaves and pine needles. Such a wind could not be predicted, for no one knows the mind of the wind, but when it had come and gone things were found to have been displaced.

During the night curious animals were drawn to the place by the scent of Hina’s Sappur, and they disturbed the noisy fence. They were peaceful creatures who were happy to lope back into the darkness toward their warrens and caves once their curiosity was satisfied.

The next morning Hina went off to be alone. “Do not follow me,” she instructed Cadda.

Hina took only a water vessel with her and walked in the direction of the spring she, Cadda, and Nanna Gedda had passed on the way to Mann. It was not hard to find, for it was nearby. The trees grew thick around this damp place, and they comforted Hina by providing a screen within which she felt protected.

She sat in this solitude for a long time, mourning her Matta, wanting to confer with her and to commiserate. There had been few occasions for tears in Hina’s young life, but now they poured out like the spring she sat by. Eventually, Hina decided that her tears should end, so she dipped her hand under the trickle of the spring and applied the water to her face. The pure cold of the water startled Hina awake, and she sat in shock for a few moments.

She must have sat quite motionless, for a roe deer and her two fawns crept out of the forest toward the spring. The doe’s ears pricked up and she listened and looked wide-eyed for a threat, but the thirsty fawns charged ahead and began to lick the wet rocks.

Hina and the doe locked eyes and stared at one another for several long moments. The doe’s eyes were bottomless pools of fright and determination. She allowed her fawns to drink their fill, and when they had finished she herself took a quick draught before ushering them on, away from danger.

Hina was careful not to move until the deer were safely out of sight, and once they were, she pulled her tunic up to her waist and splashed water on her inner thighs. Watching her moon blood swirl into and dance merrily away with the spring water, Hina felt a part of her departing. This was her first moon blood, and every drop of it was sacred. But hadn’t she blessed the spring with it? And wouldn’t the place to wherever its waters were traveling also receive her blessing?

Hina scooped up her filled water vessel and returned to Mann. Her Nanna was squatting at the fire circle, which now held welcoming flames that licked the pot of water that hovered over them. Nanna’s brewing paraphernalia was scattered at her feet and the aroma of her herbal concoction was in the air.

“We must be careful of our courtyard,” Hina said, standing over her Nanna.

Cadda and Ista had just completed rolling up their sleeping mats and skins, and came to stand nearby.

“The Courtyard is sacred,” Hina said. “No structures are allowed to be built upon it.”

She spied the horned vessel among Nanna’s things at her feet. She picked it up and added a bit of the spring’s water to the blood within. She walked in a wide arc around the fire circle, sprinkling her blood as she went, still conserving a little of it for future consecration. From the corner of her eye she saw Ixi and Azul step out of the woods, each of them grasping the neck of a lifeless bird.

“No death shall be allowed here,” Hina continued. “This is the Courtyard of Blood, of life, of celebration. This fire shall know no death. Here, our people will please Ma in all they do.”

Ixi stopped in his tracks and hung the birds up on a nearby tree. He came into the circle, careful to step over the trail of blood water. “Let us get to work on making this place comfortable, then, Matta Hina.”

They congregated around Nanna’s fire, where she served them brew and food. Ista built a separate fire outside Hina’s sacred Courtyard of Blood, and he and Ixi roasted the birds Ixi had killed. The wermadn did not eat the birds, but Ixi refused to let his kill go to waste.

“What Bahartr will come to Mann?” Ixi asked.

Nanna Gedda answered. “Bethid will come. And Peor.”

Ixi put a hand on Hina’s. “We Bahartr are honored to build houses for the Mattas of Mann.”

Hina smiled tenderly at Ixi, whose presence brought great comfort to her.

It was decided that Ista and Azul would continue to collect straight twigs from the forest. They had already gathered many during their time here with Ixi, and they showed the wermadn the supply they had stored behind one of the buildings. Bethid and Peor would make the mud daub that would cover the wattle walls; Nanna assured the group that Nansh and Mabal would be sending those Bahartr on immediately.

Nanna Gedda showed Hina and Cadda how to weave slim branches between sturdy stakes to form the wattle. The three of them worked most of the day in much the same way Hina remembered working alongside her Matta weaving or spinning wool or plant fibers. Like Heka, Nanna Gedda kept a pot of brew at the ready for the duration of their work, and Hina was comforted by it. She kept quiet, and listened to Nanna Gedda’s deep and soothing voice telling stories of her own youth and how it was she came to learn this craft, then Cadda asking pointed questions always with the intent to glean knowledge that would make her helpful. Hina felt life being breathed into this place. She felt a sharp pang of deep sadness that she would not share this life with her Matta, and that Heka would not know the joys the wermadn of Mann would know.

But when Hina looked around she saw freedom, and it was a freedom the wermadn of Mens had not known for a long while. It was a freedom they had been robbed of little by little. Hina thought of the field of sun-dried bricks that Nannum oversaw on the edge of Mens. All day, he would pack mud into bricks, which would be used to build the houses of the foreigners who came to settle in Mens. Each brick meant the hemming in of the people, the gradual disappearance of their courtyard, and the dilution of the Mattas’ power until nothing remained.

Here in Mann there was space, and – it seemed to Hina – its people must be protective of it. She knew now that that was her role here: protector of Mann, voice of Ma. All of Mann’s people and all of her visitors must respect Ma and worship Her at Hina’s hearth. Hina’s own feelings of entrapment were beginning to melt away even as she recognized their presence.

 

 

In the morning, Cadda found Hina standing over the crumbling hearth in the center of one of the buildings. It was a moon-shaped pit with a partial clay wall around half of it. A smaller pit lay to the side where the best ashes were collected and later used for soap making. Animals had been roasted here and eaten.

“There is a spirit in this place. Though death happened here, it is harmonious with the forest. Our new buildings must be, too,” said Hina.

“You must have a temple, Matta Hina,” said Cadda.

“But not here in these walls, Cadda. Our temple’s walls will be made with the hands of wermadn, for it will be a sacred place where we will gather and make magic. And no death shall come there.”

Hina and Cadda told Nanna Gedda of their plan, and Nanna put them all to work making wattle walls much longer than those they had made the day before. Their hands were stiff and weary, but they made the temple’s walls with renewed inspiration. They talked of how pleased Nansh and Mabal would be with a temple the Mattas could call their own.

They ate voraciously around the fire that night, and were very merry. They passed around food and ate from the same bowls. Then, something beyond the fire’s light caught Ista’s eyes, and he stood and stared into the darkness. A dog now became visible, lowering her head and inching toward the group.

Azul recognized the dog, and jumped up and went to her, stroking her head and neck and murmuring softly. Ista joined him. Hina realized that she, too, knew this dog, and looked beyond her into the dark. Finally, Peor and Bethid appeared.

Both Bahartrs wore smiles, and they approached the fire with obvious gratitude, for it provided the light and warmth they had missed since the sun descended. They had been walking for an entire day to try to make it here before the sun’s light diminished, and now they were cold, tired, and hungry. Seeing these jovial familiar faces brought smiles to their faces, though.

They went to Nanna Gedda first and kissed her cheeks. “Nanna, how good it is to see you and to embrace you,” Peor said. “I have come from Heka and she sends you her love. And to Hina. And Ista. And you all.”

Nanna looked on both Bahartr with her signature kind, sparkling eyes. Hina knew Nanna was relieved to have four more strong hands to help with the building. She had spoken of Peor’s mastery with laying clay plaster floors, and she would no doubt put him to work doing that job first thing upon sunup.

Bethid and Cadda shared a special embrace and clung close to each other while Bethid ate. Since Cadda was a baby Bethid had been there to take care of her and Panna, for he loved Mabal. Mabal and Bethid had been together for many, many moons and suns.

They all slept around the fire and were glad to have Bethid’s loyal dog with them, for she was affectionate. She would also stand watch while they slept.

At sunrise, they were all reluctant to leave the coziness of their sleeping skins, for the fire had burned all night thanks to continued nocturnal vigilance. By the time the orange light of the rising sun had given way to the bright golden day, only Hina had left her pallet.

Finally, Peor rose, and he found Hina standing before the wattle walls the wermadn had built. She was immensely proud of the results of their synergy.

Contemplating the space between trees where the temple would stand, Peor said, “Matta, your temple must be a place of great beauty and attraction.”

“It will be a simple structure,” Hina said.

“Yes, Matta,” Peor answered. “I will make a sacred hearth for you in your temple. In the very center. And, Matta Hina, anyone who enters this place, Mann, must worship under your guidance in this temple, at your hearth.”

Hina smiled a sad kind of smile at the man. She took his hand and kissed it. “Peor, please gather everyone together around this spot.”

And he set off without delay to fetch the others. When they were all standing around the spot where the temple would be, Hina turned to Cadda and Nanna Gedda, who stood beside her, Nanna with the horned moon vessel in her hands and Cadda with a full water vessel in hers. Hina took the horned moon vessel from Nanna, and held it out for Cadda to pour water into. Then, Hina walked in a circle around where Peor would lay the plaster floor of the temple. She consecrated this ground with her Sappur blood, praying as she stepped, “Ma, these wermadn and their helpers bless this ground with the blood you have provided. Your blood gives these wermadn life, your temple gives these wermadn hope and safety.”

When the blood water had all been spilled, the group remained reverently quiet, and Peor took Ista and Azul to stock all available vessels with water. They would use this water to create a central mud pit from which they would draw mud plaster.

Hina and Cadda took on the task of creating the storage vessel that would occupy a hole in the ground underneath Peor’s floor. They especially missed Tait’s expertise now, but they found that they were pleased with their results, and it was gratifying to squat next to a comrade while drawing from the mud pit Peor had dug, and to which every worker was welcome.

Before long, Azul had become a master chimney maker, forming coils of clay, stacking them on top of one another, then smoothing them together to make the seams disappear. And Ista learned how to thatch the rooves of the buildings with superior skill, and thusly he became the go-to person when any question about roofing was asked.

Hina smiled at their industriousness, for she intensely desired for her sisters and Mattas to be welcomed to Mann by strong rooves over their heads, clean floors under their feet, and warm hearths for their hearts. For they were the sacred wermadn.

In a few suns the makeshift hunting camp was transformed into a livable village, and each member of the group felt proud and happy. They were eventually ready for their relatives, who would arrive any day. Nanna had left Mann with her usual mysteriousness, but Hina and Cadda suspected she had gone back to Mens to apprise the Mattas of the Mannians’ progress.

Though it was completed, no one had entered the temple yet. The other buildings, having had their walls and rooves mended, had now become welcoming refuges whose hearths were used daily for cooking, and nightly to house an uplifting fire that heated the houses. They slept more soundly now that they slept within walls, and more comfortably.

The Bahartr had used Nanna’s cunning engineering to roll large stones to the Courtyard of Blood, and in the early light of the dawn Hina liked to perch on one and look out into the fog-filled forest around her. Though the temple was now completed, she knew there was no holier place than among these trees. She had longed for this feeling that now saturated her being. She was utterly embraced by Ma, who was underneath her, beside her, before her, and behind her.

One sun, before much light had found its way to their corner of the forest, Cadda crept up and took her place beside Hina on a neighboring stone. Both of them stayed silent; an owl cooed from somewhere in the canopy, and Hina knew she was hearing the voice of Ma. Even the sound of silence was the voice of Ma, but when She spoke words, they came from the forest, so Hina and Cadda listened closely. They thought of Pana, who could hear Ma’s voice in the plants.

“We have much to learn,” Hina whispered.

In agreement, Cadda remained silent. Hina had never felt more comforted to know that Cadda was near, for her presence was the next best thing to that of Matta Heka’s. Though still a young wermad, Cadda was wise and presaging, and even now, at the very onset of their Mannian journey, Hina knew she would rely on Cadda to be her most trusted sister. Hina reached out for Cadda, and they held hands across the space between the two stones.

Movement in her periphery caught Hina’s attention, and she and Cadda both turned their heads to see Ixi, his satchel slung over his shoulder, making for the eastern forest. He turned to look at them and he and Hina shared a meaningful look.

When he had disappeared, Cadda said, “He is going to Mens. He is going to your Matta.”

Hina knew this already, but Cadda’s mournful intonation tore at her heart. Still, Hina was happy to know that Ixi and Matta Heka would be together, especially since Bara would be leaving with the other Mattas to come to Mann.

“There is still much work to do, Matta Hina,” Cadda said.

And the two of them departed the Courtyard of Blood.

 

Chapter Fourteen: Pyrq

It was sundown when the traders returned to the Village of the Bael. It was just as they had left it, but quieter than usual. At this time of day there was usually a large group of the village’s men sitting in the village center smoking pipes and exchanging stories, but today there was no one. The smell of food cooking hung in the air, but even that was eerie, for it told Pyrq that every family had chosen to take their meals indoors tonight, and none of it was being shared with neighbors like it once was. Every house had become its own village.

Anxiety rippled through the group of traders. Ahur sent the other men to their respective homes; he and Zakar would dismantle their cart of goods and pack away what would be needed for tomorrow’s market. They and Pyrq dragged the cart home and Zakar was put in charge of storing the cart while Ahur and Pyrq rushed inside.

Febeq and Almah were just sitting down to their evening meal. They sat close together on one side of the table. Their faces were full of fear when they looked up, but Febeq closed her eyes and hung her head with relief when she saw her husband and son. Almah jumped up and ran to her father, throwing her arms around him and kissing his cheeks. He lifted her up and squeezed her tightly while Pyrq went to his mother.

Febeq embraced him and as he hugged his arms around her he could feel that she was trembling. She pushed him away and wiped her face, careful to keep her face turned away from his. “Come, come,” she said. “I will prepare more food for you…and Zakar? Where is Zakar?”

Zakar appeared in the doorway just as Febeq asked this, and they smiled at one another. She busied herself at the hearth, keeping her back turned to the room. But Ahur went to her and turned her around. He seated himself on the nearby bench and pulled her to him. He buried his face in her belly and she spread her hands on his head. She pulled his tail of black and gray hair, held back with a horse leather thong, so that Ahur’s face looked up to hers. She kissed him on his forehead and he hugged her tightly to him.

Pyrq watched this with much curiosity. He had not ever considered before now that his father longed for his mother on his long trips away from home, and she for him. Now their bodies seemed to be locked in a kind of coordinated dance, moving together, synced in comfort and expectancy. They had been married for a long time.

Zakar now embraced his niece with the gentleness she had come to expect from him. Zakar was not like a second father to Almah, nor to Pyrq. He was more like a much older brother, and he was particularly protective of Almah.

Almah turned her head toward Pyrq even as she was in Zakar’s arms. “Brother, tell me about your journey! Was it tiring?”

Pyrq simply stated, “Yes, it was tiring,” and then sat down at the table.

Almah sat down next to him and looped her arm through his. She rested her head on his shoulder. He wanted her to go away, but he felt that she had been afraid and could finally relax now that her protectors had returned. Still, she was the eldest sibling, and he was annoyed by her helplessness.

Later that night he pretended to be asleep while his mother, father, and uncle confabulated out of doors, stationing themselves at the rear of the house where passersby would be none the wiser. Though, Pyrq thought it silly to be concerned with perambulating villagers at this time of night, for most everyone would surely be sleeping. Besides, Pyrq’s family’s house was the last house in the village, and passersby were infrequent.

Still, Febeq, Ahur, and Zakar talked lowly or whispered, and Pyrq had to creep closer to the rear entry to discern their words.

“You have always kept some distance from the other women, Febeq,” Zakar said after Febeq told about the mysterious ceremony she and Almah had stayed away from.

“Women in groups have always displeased my brother, and our father before him. And I suppose the gathering had something to do with the Bael’s taking brides, and Almah is exempt from that. There was no reason for us to attend,” Febeq said.

There was a long silence now, but Pyrq’s ears only strained more intensely, as if he was trying to hear their thoughts. His mother now spoke especially quietly. She remembered Aqatha, the Bael’s wife who had not survived childbirth. The baby had died not long after her mother, and the Bael was filled with anger. “He had wanted a boy,” Febeq said in an eerily grave tone.

“It is rumored that the Bael will take another bride from the East,” Ahur said.

“His people are from the East,” Febeq said.

“His god is from the East,” Zakar added.

Febeq told them about a red mark on their house; they would not have observed it in the dimness of the evening when they had arrived. She told them two men had come to the house regularly. The men had never hurt them, but they barged in, looked around, sometimes broke something, and exited without a word. She told Ahur and Zakar that she and Almah had heard female screams coming from the house of their nearest neighbor, Harqa, and they heard wailing for several days thereafter. When she had been outside splashing in the rain barrel Febeq had spied Harqa washing some linens. Harqa had cowered and avoided Febeq’s eyes, scurrying back into her house quickly, visibly uncomfortable with being seen. Harqa’s daughter, a girl who was a little younger than Almah, had not been seen since before the screaming.

Pyrq had heard enough. He crawled back to his sleeping pallet and pulled the skins up to his chin. He tried to get comfortable, but thoughts and visions crowded his brain so that he could not rest. He thought of the woman in the woods, as he did every night, though he had to banish her because of the arousal her memory caused. He felt embarrassed, as if his thoughts might become known to others.

“Harqa’s house doesn’t have a red mark,” said Almah, her voice disembodied. It almost startled Pyrq.

He did not respond. He thought how silly his mother and sister were. Why didn’t they just march up to their neighbors and demand information? Why did they stay away from the ceremony, which seemed to have been very important, and might have even brought the Bael’s attention and his blessing to their household? The Bael was the most powerful person in their village, yet Pyrq’s family seemed to avoid him instead of try to become allies, though Febeq could surely have used her kinship to the Bael to curry favor and status. (Even if Almah had not been the Bael’s own niece, surely he would have passed her over, Pyrq thought. She would not have stood out among the other village girls, for she was plain and quiet.)

He lay awake for a long time, in spite of his fatigue, and he heard Zakar come inside and roll out his sleeping mat. Zakar fell asleep almost instantly, but Pyrq’s mother and father did not come into the house for a long time. In the morning, they were asleep side-by-side in their usual sleeping spot.

“Pyrq,” Ahur called from his pallet. “Let us rise and see to our inventory. We should prepare for the market. And no doubt we will get visitors today.”

Pyrq was too tired to ask what visitors they may receive today. He pulled himself up, rolled up his sleeping mat and stored it alongside the skins. While he was doing this the women rose and walked outside together; Febeq was carrying a large blanket Pyrq remembered Ahur bringing home from his routes long ago. Pyrq looked their way, curious. He was unfamiliar with this custom, which seemed out-of-place and conspicuous – not like his mother or sister at all.

Pyrq asked Almah about it when they returned. She only said, “We go to urinate near the house. The river is no longer a place for bathing. The Bael’s men are there. They do not allow women to gather in pairs or groups.”

So the blanket must be for privacy, Pyrq thought. He felt annoyed by the women’s fear. They were silly and weak. For the first time he was regretful he would be bringing another woman, a wife, into this house someday. He had been thinking a lot about a wife lately, and at this moment he dreaded it. It seemed a shame to bring one more petulant woman to this house. She would cower and tremble like his mother did, and she would perhaps be meek and quiet like Almah was. Women had no sense or courage.

Pyrq relieved himself outside, then went to his father who was methodically removing items from their cart and taking stock. When enough items had been removed from the cart, Pyrq hoisted himself up and inside it where he could reach the remaining goods and hand them to Ahur.

Two men strolled by them and then up the path again. They were looking around and walking very slowly. They wore belts of deep scarlet and comported themselves with entitlement and authority. Ahur held up a hand in greeting, for he knew these men, but they did not return the greeting. They only looked at him and strolled back up the path toward the village center. Ahur wrinkled his face up with concern.

Not long after that when the family was seated at the table in the hearthroom eating their morning repast, two men entered the house. These men also wore red belts, and their arrival was only meant to herald and protect another’s: the Bael. The Bael swept into the house, stooping a little through the doorway, for he was a tall man. Everyone rose from the table, probably more from the surprise of having an unannounced guest who did not bother to request entrance than the identity of the guest himself.

The Bael wore a striking red tunic and several strands of beads around his neck, and Pyrq looked him up and down with awe, his mouth a little agape. The Bael’s face was more kindly than Pyrq remembered. This man was not as old as Pyrq’s parents, but his face was weathered and brown. Pyrq thought he looked wise. And he must be wise because he was the leader of all the people of their village, and he made all the important decisions for his people. And the Bael’s father, who Pyrq remembered had gone to the mountain god long ago, was the First Bael. The First Bael had brought unity and stability to this village by providing protection from two groups in the East who regularly attacked. The people had fallen in behind him out of fear; thusly they made him their leader, and he brought peace to what would become the Village of the Bael. The First Bael had chosen his son to succeed him, insisting that this son was blessed by the mountain god, and chosen to lead the people of this village.

“Ahur! Welcome back!” The Bael clasped arms with Ahur. “Sister! How good to see you!” With this, the Bael gave Febeq a kiss on her mouth. Everyone in the room stood breathless, for this was not the custom for greeting a woman. But Febeq was the Bael’s sister, and his kiss was a demonstration to her and her husband that he could take liberties others could not.

At once, everything felt tense and uncomfortable. Ahur stood like a stone while Zakar brooded in the background, his face dark and indignant. But he managed to come forward when the Bael addressed him, and they clasped arms. Pyrq wondered if the Bael could see the anger that boiled under Zakar’s forced propriety.

But if he did see it he did not show it, or he did not care. He invited everyone to come sit near him in the front room of the house. To Pyrq’s delight, the Bael turned his attention toward him. “Pyrq! You have now become accustomed to traveling your father’s routes, I hear. You will take them over sooner than you think.”

Pyrq and the others stayed quiet while confusion and fear wound its way through the family. Finally, in the silence during which the Bael fixed his eyes on Pyrq, Pyrq said, “Thank you, Bael.”

The Bael seemed satisfied now, and he relaxed his shoulders a little before going on. “Ahur, I thank you for training your son on the western routes. I have plans for you. You must travel east now.”

Ahur frowned and Pyrq looked back and forth between the two men, hoping his father did not upset the Bael. Ahur stayed silent, and Pyrq thought he looked angrier with each moment that passed.

Finally, Febeq interjected using an obsequious tone that Pyrq had never heard her use before. “Brother, how generous you are to come to our home! Thank you. Can I bring you anything at all? Some fresh water? Some bread?”

“No.”

“Tell us more about the East,” she implored. “For, Ahur has held his western routes practically all his life. He has many friends among those routes, and brings excellent goods to this village.”

“And he has no doubt taught his son the routes now. Pyrq is ready to take them over. Are you not, Pyrq?” the Bael asked.

Pyrq forced words from his mouth. “I…I…yes.” He wondered why he had said this. Not for a moment did he believe he was ready to take over his father’s trade routes. He looked at his father, but Ahur was still staring at the Bael.

“Your fellow trader, Molkar, has gone to the mountain god,” said the Bael. “He died while you were gone. I need someone I can trust on those eastern routes. Come! You will meet some of my kinfolk in the East! And, most importantly, you are a trustworthy person who can bring my bride to me.”

Judging by the stunned look on Ahur’s face, Molkar’s death was news to him. He sat in silence for many moments.

“I prefer to keep my western routes, Bael,” Ahur finally said.

Suddenly the kindness Pyrq had seen in the Bael’s face disappeared. His face became like furious stone and he sat forward, keeping composed. “Your preference matters not, Ahur. You will begin the eastern routes. You will leave as soon as arrangements are made. Molkar’s men have all been informed and are ready to accompany you.”

He rose to leave the house. When he passed Pyrq he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Worry not, Pyrq! For your uncle, Zakar, will still accompany you on your routes. And you can keep the other men, too. Your father will have Molkar’s old band.”

Kindness having returned to his demeanor, he turned one last time to the family and looked at Febeq. “Goodbye, sister,” he said. Then he was gone.

Ahur wasted no time. He left the house the minute the Bael and his men were out of sight.

Zakar came and stood before Pyrq. He put his arms around the boy and hugged him to his chest. Pyrq stood paralyzed for some moments, but thoughts came rushing into his head even as that head was buried in his uncle’s breast, and he began to feel like crying. Then he was ashamed at the burning sensation in his throat and the tears that threatened his eyes, so he wrangled himself away from his uncle’s embrace and went out the back entryway to brood.

He forced himself to think of something other than how he feared for his father trying to navigate the unfamiliar and unforgiving routes of the East, for Pyrq had heard his whole life about the treacherous mountains and the unrelenting cold of the East. Yet, the Bael’s people were in the East.

Pyrq also pushed away thoughts of traversing the West without his father. Even with Zakar and the other traders for company, traveling without his father intimidated Pyrq. Their train would be a headless snake, and Pyrq certainly knew he was incompetent to replace his father. He imagined Zakar would reluctantly move into that role of leader, but it would take some getting used to for Pyrq and the others.

Only the memory of the sensual woman in the woods was strong enough to temper the fear and confusion the other thoughts brought to Pyrq. But thinking of her made him hard between his legs. He stepped away from the house into the nearby brush and when he believed himself to be well hidden, he began to touch himself, still thinking of the woman in the woods. Her skin had been smooth and her mouth had tasted sweet, like the brew his mother used to drink when he was a boy. The woman’s body had been almost invisible to Pyrq’s eyes, for it had been drenched in darkness, but all her curves and mysteries had been visible to his hands. She had put his hands in the places she wanted him to have knowledge of. Now, in this autonomous sexual moment, he reproached himself for having resisted. He wanted to be back there with her, in the deep woods, in the dark.

But when his moment alone was finished he felt dissatisfied and lonely. Yet he did not want any company, and he did not want to sit with his family now, so he turned toward the river where he undressed and swam. It was too late in the morning for any women to be at the river, but some of the Bael’s men patrolled the banks. They barely looked Pyrq’s way; they just walked slowly and observantly, their red sashes standing out among the greenery.

Finally Pyrq grew tired of swimming by himself, dragging himself onto a grassy bank and sunning for a few moments in an effort to dry off. His body was still damp when he pulled his tunic back on, and the cloth clung to him. He wished to stay in the open air where he would dry quicker, so he deposited himself on the bench outside the back entry of the house. He could hear an occasional shuffle or clinking coming from his mother’s workroom; his sister and mother had gone about their workday as usual. Now, with the additional trading route thrust upon the family, the women would have to increase their production. Again, Pyrq thought about a wife, whose hands would be a welcome addition to Febeq’s enterprise.

He sat like that for some time, alone and contemplative. His mother appeared in the doorway rubbing her back until she noticed him there. She came to sit beside him.

“Father should acquire a wife for me from the East, too, Akka,” he said.

After a very long silence she said, “You have been to the river.”

“Yes.”

“I miss it. Your sister and I rarely risk going anymore. You should have brought some water back.”

He rose. “I will get your water, Akka.”

And he fetched the water vessels from inside, and made for the river. But his mother grabbed his hand as he tried to walk past her, and she held it for a long time. Finally her hand relaxed and Pyrq went about completing his chore. He could feel her mournful eyes on him as he disappeared down the path toward the river.

When he returned Pyrq joined his father and uncle, who were packing up to go to the center of the village to set up their market. No words were spoken, for by now they worked like a well-greased cart axle. They had nothing to say to one another anyway. They were all discontented by their impotence. And Ahur offered no explanation of where he had gone after the Bael’s visit.

The market was not the buzzing centerpiece of the village it had been in the past, and now more than ever, it stood in stark contrast to the swarming markets of other villages Pyrq had become accustomed to. Still, the three men went about as usual assembling their booth with its tables and displays.

“Tuk!” Ahur cried, and he met that man coming up the path and clasped arms with him.

Tuk, who had been Molkar’s second-in-command, looked haggard. He tried to emit amiability, clasping arms with Pyrq and Zakar and trying to smile in spite of a deeply worried brow, but his exasperated sigh as he collapsed onto a boulder near Ahur’s stand gave him away. He seemed to be on the verge of tears.

“I look forward to leaving this place with you, Ahur, I must admit,” Tuk said. “But my family! My wife and my young daughter will be here alone, with no protection. The Bael demands my son accompany our trading band to the East, and he is too young to defend the women anyway.”

“There is no defense against the Bael’s men, it would seem, friend,” Zakar interjected.

“Zakar, you were wise to bring no woman to this village. She would not be safe. Ahur, at least Febeq offers herself and your daughter some protection. You were wise to marry her,” said Tuk. “The Bael is your brother, and that gives your women protection.”

Zakar intervened with a voice that sounded far away. It was the voice of a man remembering. “The Bael has never felt like family to us,” said Zakar.

A long, shared and bitter silence ensued.

Tuk said, “The Bael can take what he wants. He can choose whatever woman he wishes to carry on his bloodline. His father left behind a string of discarded women just like Febeq’s mother, who I remember as a sweet, pretty girl.”

Zakar lowered his voice and asked, “Tuk, do you know what has happened to Harqa’s daughter? She has become terribly elusive and Febeq reports screams and cries coming from her house.”

Tuk leaned in closer and whispered, “Harqa attempted to leave before the Bael’s ceremony, which you are no doubt aware of. She and her daughter were caught trying to leave the village the night before, with everything they owned on their backs. The Bael’s men caught them at the edge of the village, in the woods, and dragged them back to face the Bael. The Bael now visits Harqa’s house regularly. My wife believes Harqa and her daughter will each give birth to a child by the time I return from the East.”

Pyrq, Ahur, and Zakar sat silently now. Pyrq felt more than ever that his mother was foolish for not attending the ceremony, given the possible consequences. She must get in line with the Bael’s rules, and she must learn to obey him if she wanted to live and to protect Almah. Pyrq could see now what he had not seen as a child: the Bael could take whomever he wanted and whatever he wanted.

Catching sight of two of the Bael’s red-sashed men walking toward the marketplace, Tuk scurried off. One of the men, whom Pyrq knew to be the son of a good friend of Ahur’s, said, “Ahur! Aren’t you supposed to be going east? What are you still doing here?”

“Tuk and I have much work to do to sell off Molkar’s inventory to make space for my wife’s vessels and the other items to be traded. I’m sure the Bael will understand that more time is needed so that we can better represent his village abroad to his own people. Besides, the more prepared we are, the better items we can bring back to him.”

The man seemed begrudgingly placated. But, then, he and his companion pointed out several items to be packed up and sent to the Bael by the day’s end. Zakar and Ahur reacted slowly to their commands, which only provoked the men.

When Ahur inquired what kind of trade or payment he would receive for the items, he was told that the honor of sending gifts to the Bael was his payment. The men stormed off with a portion of their booty and barked that they would return later for the rest. When they did return they announced that the Bael had given Ahur only until the next morning to be on his way.

On the walk home that evening in the dusk the moon was staying away, shielding herself with clouds. Pyrq felt alone though he walked with his father and his uncle.

“Father, do you know people from the eastern villages?” he asked.

“A very few – and not well.”

“It would please the Bael if I took a wife from the East. I want you to choose a wife for me from the East, and bring her back to me.”

Ahur nodded, but was silent for long thereafter, even after they arrived back home and sat to eat a meal with the women.

After the meal, which was mostly eaten in silence, Ahur, Zakar, and Febeq disappeared to the rear of the house while Almah cleaned the eating vessels and the hearth. Pyrq felt like a child, left behind to play on the floor while his sister was busied. Hadn’t the Bael treated him like a grown man and put him in charge of his father’s western routes?

Pyrq stormed out to the adults’ conferring, but his father and uncle were both walking away.

“They are going to meet with Tuk. Come sit with me, son,” said Febeq. She put her hand on his when he sat, but she soon took it away to rub her elbow, a habit she had had as long as Pyrq could remember.

“What will bringing a wife to this place afford you, Pyrq? And how will you protect her?” Febeq asked.

Pyrq did not have an answer.

“Follow your Uncle Zakar, who has never taken a wife whom he would only abandon to the whims of the Bael. This is not a good place for a woman.”

“Akka, I will befriend the Bael. He can be won over with red trinkets from the West. And when he knows I am loyal enough to follow his eastern customs, bringing a bride from the East to bear my children, he will look favorably on this household. Thusly, we will be protected.”

“It is not as you say, Pyrq,” Febeq despaired.

“If my father will not bring a woman from the East, I will go to the Bael and the Bael will order it be done.”

Febeq looked at her son shocked and angry, but said nothing. He did not meet her stare, but looked straight ahead. She rose with much composure and disappeared into the house.

He resented that he had been discouraged from knowing the Bael his whole life. He imagined that things for his family would be much different now if only his mother and his father had taken advantage of his mother’s kinship to the Bael instead of rejecting it. He now begrudged his mother as the family’s protector.

 

 

That evening Ahur was busy preparing to leave with Tuk and the rest of Molkar’s old trading crew. He brought Pyrq and Zakar outside to the cart to confer about what inventory should be sent east. Ahur and Tuk had pulled Molkar’s cart to sit alongside what was now Pyrq and Zakar’s cart. Their task was to transfer and exchange items according to what would trade best along their respective routes. Pyrq thought that he impressed his father and uncle, and even Tuk, with his input. He named specific communities they had visited and pointed to what those peoples liked best or would appreciate most.

Tuk put his arm around Pyrq’s shoulders and said, “You and your uncle will be successful.”

When business had been completed Zakar invited Tuk to smoke at the back of the house. Pyrq detected Tuk glancing at the red mark by their front door before agreeing to the invitation.

The men took out their pipes, leaving Pyrq, who had not yet partaken of this custom, feeling like a child again. Still, Pyrq marveled at the men’s laconism. Their pipes seemed to plug their mouths, damming all the things they might say or discuss.

Their thoughts and smoking were interrupted by the sound of whimpering coming from the neighbor’s house. A woman’s voice, kept low and maintaining calmness, was heard among the whimpers. They all knew it was the sound of Harqa comforting her daughter.

“Why does she cry?” Pyrq whispered.

“She has been chosen by the Bael,” Zakar answered. His voice was deep and angry, even in its dearth of words.

“Why does she cry?” Pyrq insisted.

Tuk rose now and walked away into dimming light. He touched Ahur’s shoulder as he walked past him.

“Go inside, Pyrq,” Ahur said, and he and Zakar rose to escort Pyrq.

Inside, Almah was already dozing on her sleeping mat. Pyrq’s mother, sitting in the light of a torch repairing a tunic of Almah’s, exchanged a look with Ahur. She put her work away and joined the men and Pyrq at the table, but not before she extinguished the torch. They sat at the table in almost total darkness but for the moonlight streaming in through the windows and the entryway. Ahur moved a large piece of wood in front of the entryway as was custom for keeping animals out of the house at night.

Pyrq was struck by his mother’s beauty when the moonlight bathed her black hair and her profile. She had a rather distinct nose, and she had always attributed its straightness and pointiness to her mother’s people in the West. Pyrq wondered if her mother’s face had looked like Febeq’s, and if its exotic distinction had drawn the Old Bael to her. Pyrq felt proud when he thought that his mother’s mother had been a favorite of the Old Bael. That was a great honor, even if his parents did not act as if it were.

“I will bring you back a bride of my choosing, Pyrq,” Ahur said.

“Good,” Pyrq replied. “I will be honored to have a bride from the same village as the Bael’s bride.”

“Your woman will not be from that village.”

Pyrq pouted. He finally demanded, “She will be from the East!”

“Yes, son,” Ahur said. “She will be from the East.”

“Why won’t you..?” Pyrq started, but his father raised a hand of finality that told Pyrq there was no use in arguing; Pyrq had lost this battle, and he was at his father’s mercy.

Pyrq stormed toward the entryway, but it was blocked with the large wooden board. He struggled to move the board but it was very wide and heavy. Zakar appeared at his side and removed the board so Pyrq could pass. Pyrq found himself out in the night alone and, frustrated, plunked down on the bench outside the house. Zakar replaced the board.

The thick canopy over Pyrq’s head tried to shield him from the moon’s light, but the light prevailed. He heard the river just beyond him rushing away. He wished he could rush away, too; but, then, he would be gone soon enough with Zakar; they would not sleep in a house for many, many nights. And he would not see his father again for a very long time. He knew not when their paths would cross again.

Pyrq was startled by a movement to his side. It was Zakar. Pyrq hadn’t noticed that when Zakar had replaced the board he had been on this side of it. He stood before Pyrq, and now Pyrq could see that Zakar’s face, awash with moonlight, looked wounded, and Pyrq felt ashamed.

“I am your uncle. The Bael has never been anything to you. He has never been anything to your mother. I am her true brother, and the brother of your father. Why must you look to the Bael for family? His approval brings nothing but pain.” And with that he disappeared into the night.

“It’s time for sleep,” Ahur announced, standing near enough to the blocked entry for Pyrq to hear.

Ahur moved the board for Pyrq. Febeq had already unrolled her sleeping mat and Ahur’s. Pyrq made his own pallet in the corner near Almah as he always had. He watched his mother stoke her hearth once more before snuggling down next to his father.

Pyrq lay awake staring into the darkness. Almah’s whispering voice reached out to Pyrq, startling him: “The village girls bathed in the river and put flowers in their hair before the ceremony.”

She didn’t say another thing for several moments. The pause hung in the darkness over Pyrq like an ax, and he did not understand how her words were ominous, but her voice was warning. Its tone arrested Pyrq, for he had always thought of his sister as simple, even dull, yet here she was with knowledge he did not have, and the insight to portend. Again, things seemed to have changed overnight for Pyrq, and he suddenly felt, of all the people in this house, he was the one who knew the least. He lay in the dark seeing nothing but the occasional vision of a seductress in a strange forest, and hearing nothing but the presaging voice of a paltry woman. He felt anger welling up as the long pause became longer.

But finally her voice came again, saying, “The life of a woman is pain.”

He had had enough of Almah’s cryptic words. He turned his back to the direction from which her voice had come and drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Fifteen: Heka

Heka eyed the empty corner where Hina had slept. It missed Hina’s neatly folded animal skins and sleeping mat, for she had taken those with her to the yoni grove. When she left for the yoni grove with the other wermadn, she had not known to pause in the doorway of the house and look back, savoring the memories she had here. She would not have touched the doorway as she passed through it, pained that she would never pass through it again. She would not have passed through the back entryway to run through the meadow one last time.

Heka held Bara close to her now. They sat side by side on the bench by the hearth, Bara fondling Heka’s clay adamah goddess, and Heka forcing her sadness away from her, for she feared its ugliness would infect Bara.

They had returned to Mens under a cloudy sky, so Heka had lit her hearth immediately to chase away melancholy. For Bara, who was yet to discover all the changes that would be thrust upon her, the cheery flames distracted her from the emptiness of the house, and she was happy to have her Matta’s attention all to herself.

Bara continued playing with the adamah goddess, quite pleased that the sound of her voice went uncontested in the most quiet this house had ever known, while Heka cooked a meal for them over the hearth. She was glad to have this duty, for it kept her gloomy face turned away from her daughter.

Bara chirped and chattered while they ate, happy to fill the silence. And when they had eaten their meal and cleaned their bowls, Bara skipped over to the doorway and fetched Heka’s moonstick.

“Here, Matta,” she said, handing Heka the stick with both her little hands.

Bara was just becoming aware of her imminent shift to wermad; it wasn’t just something that was happening to Hina, but something that would happen to Bara soon, too. In Mann, young girls would have all the advantages of living close to Ma; they would not be confined to brick and plaster walls, and separated from the forest and each other.

Thinking of Bara growing up in the forest, her transition being overseen by Hina and the Mattas – and, yes, Nanna Gedda – made Heka tearful. One fat droplet escaped from her eye and rolled quickly down her cheek before she could wipe it away.

Bara had seen it. She squeezed her Matta’s waist and said consolingly, “Matta, Matta, don’t cry. You are always with us.”

Heka pulled away enough to look into Bara’s face where she searched and searched. She wondered if she had underestimated the child.

“Will Ixi stay here with you, Matta?”

Heka’s shoulders fell and she exhaled. She smoothed Bara’s forehead with her palm. “No, Bara. Ixi will not stay. His place is not here.”

They sat silently holding each other for a long time. It would be the last time. Heka was suddenly very aware of Aki’s skull looking down at them from its perch.

Heka felt like she was at the end of an unremarkable road, disjointed from the colorful path she could see her children walking just ahead and out of her reach. The thought of Aki, though, reminded her to find joy. And she did.

She cuddled Bara up close to her and smiled. “Think, Bara, how wonderful your life will be. You will be free in Mann.”

“Will there be a modir, Matta? For me and Tait?”

“Of course. Hina and Nanna are probably building it now.”

“Is Ista there, too? In Mann?”

“Yes, Bara. He and Hina are preparing for you to join them.”

“Matta, what will you do? What will you do here in Mens?”

Heka held Bara’s face close to her own, between her hands. “I will think of you every sun and every moon. And I will know that you have found Ma. And that will make me very, very happy.”

Bara fell asleep on Heka’s bench after several moments, and when Heka had tucked the child in tightly under the sleeping skins, she crept out the front door.

There was Nansh, sitting on her bench holding two bowls of brew, steam rising from each of them. Heka took her place on her bench and put the bowl Nansh placed in her hands to her lips. She began to cry silently, the brew passing her lips and mingling with the salt of her tears. Nansh continued to sit wordlessly and motionlessly until Heka’s tears were spent. And when Heka had drained her bowl of brew and wiped the tears from her cheeks, Nansh glided over to her. She stood before her friend, reaching out for the empty bowl, which she exchanged for a bundle she carried.

Heka took the bundle, holding her hand out while she watched Nansh’s graceful and voluptuous form disappear into the darkness. She then brought the bundle up to her nose and inhaled deeply. The brew mixture within the bundle would last her through the cold season, which would be upon the world soon. She felt very lonely to think of drinking the brew all alone.

She went inside the house to find Ixi sitting on the bench watching Bara sleep. Heka took her bundle into the hearthroom, and Ixi came to stand beside her. He dragged a sleeping skin behind him and took her hand. They went to the roof of the house and snuggled together to keep warm. He held her for a long time and neither of them spoke a word.

When the sun extended its first little arms of light the next morning, Heka jumped up and scrambled down the ladder into the house. Her sleeping bench was empty and its skins had been folded neatly. Bara was gone. Heka ran outside and found the house next door abandoned. But its hearth was yet warm.

She returned to her own hearth to find Ixi with an apologetic countenance. But Heka ignored it and said, “Ixi, take me into the forest. I want to see them leave. Take me to the forest to see them but to be unseen.”

Ixi scooped up his satchel and put it over his shoulder, hurrying out the house’s back entryway with Heka’s hand in his. They jogged along in a westward direction, diving deep into the forest. Being this deep in the forest gave Heka’s heart a surge of hopefulness and inspiration, and she thought about her loom. But Ixi led her on, his feet falling quickly and nearly silently, and hers scurrying to keep up.

At one point, Ixi turned northward, then west again. He finally pulled Heka downward and they crouched. And Heka saw figures in the trees. One by one, the wermadn and the young girls – sweet Bara and Tait – picked their way through the trees and brush. Heka caught glimpses of their colorful tunics and those who wore red belts. It was strange to see Lada with that slash of vermillion at her waist, for Lada’s clothes had never been especially colorful. Heka knew that Erua must have gifted Lada this belt, a gesture of inclusion – an embrace. To Lada it probably symbolized her divorce from her parents’ way of life, and her official adoption of the Mattas’ culture and customs. Heka’s heart swelled with pride seeing a glimpse of Lada in a red belt through the trees.

And Heka was intrigued by something else she saw: Lada carried a very large, weighted bundle on her back. Heka narrowed her eyes in an effort to visually reach out and move leaves and brush out of her eyes’ way. She could just make out a little white face peeping out from the pack. Heka wanted to laugh. Sweet Lada! She could not abandon her little Veles to Nannum. Inwardly, Heka braced her fortitude for Nannum’s retribution, for which she was sure to be the target.

Bara and Tait had glided by ahead of Lada, and now they were not visible, nor could they be heard, for they were reverently silent though this was not typical of them. Heka hoped Bara would not be sad for long, though Heka’s own aching would last for the rest of her life.

“Bethid and Peor have already left for Mann,” Heka said.

Ixi answered, “Yes. By now they have lain the plaster floors for the houses.”

“Nanna arranged that well.”

Heka pushed Nanna’s calculating out of her mind now, for she was struck by the sight of the vein of color seeping away from Mens. Bethid and Peor were faithful followers who would never abandon the wermadn, the keepers of color. It would have been easy for the Bahartr to leave behind drab Mens. It would be especially easy for Ixi. Heka watched him closely, trying to find answers without use of words, but she wouldn’t be sure of his allegiance until the next morning when he was nowhere to be found.

She had expected that. She supposed she would not see Ixi again. What reason had he to return to Mens, the place that had been so cruel to his people? Nanna would perhaps have encouraged Ixi to forsake Heka, for Heka’s way could only be clear if she was completely alone.

In the forest, watching the Mattas and the girls disappear into Ma’s world, Heka’s eyes had opened wider. She must reinvent herself and her purpose, and she saw that Nanna Gedda was right: Heka must do this alone. It was a privilege and a great responsibility to be left alone in Mens. She knew what she must do.

Abandoned to a strangely quiet house, Heka took her wool out of doors to spin where she could keep an eye on the road. Her heart hurt from the unfamiliar absence of Nansh, Mabal, and her children, who had always been near, but, with much effort, she pulled her thoughts away from her grief and focused on her mission.

She kept a lookout for Selm, but she saw no sign of him or Sera. No, with Lada now gone, they would have no reason to haunt this part of the village, for Heka’s house was near the edge of town, far from the allure of the chatoic marketplace.

When the moon appeared Heka went to sleep with a heavy head. The effort she had put into pushing away her sadness had exhausted her, and her dreams were filled with faces her reality would not hold. It was difficult for her to rise when the sun came up, for there would be no joy in this day. Nor, perhaps, the next. But for the sake of her loved ones, now far away, she must carry on with her task, for she was the only one who could do it.

She made her brew and drank it while standing in the front doorway where she found that the road was still fairly empty – as it usually was this part of a sun in this part of town. There was no sign of Selm or any other courtyard person, and Heka knew she could no longer wait for him to come to her. She knew what she must do: she must step outside of cozy familiarity. After all, isn’t that what all the Mattas were doing?

But, first, she indulged herself. She went for a walk outside on the swath of land at the rear of her house where she found some greens that she ate, and she picked some berries from the edge of the forest. She enjoyed the way the greens tingled on her tongue and scratched her throat a little, and the berries’ sweetness gave her a little joy and some energy.

But, still, her feet dragged on the walk back to her house. But when she was there, she cleaned the hearth, storing the ashes in a large lidded vessel she kept by the door, and turned her attention to the undyed cloth that hung across a window. She removed this cloth from the window, and fashioned it into a tunic. She undressed, stored her pretty blue tunic, and put on the plain cloth with a plain rope belt.

Once outside, facing the direction of the courtyard, she looked over her shoulder at the bench outside her door. She longed to perch there – but to what end? What would she accomplish by doing so, except for temporary relief from doing what she was about to do?

She crept across the road and stepped into the courtyard. She was now between two smooth walls that formed an alleyway she had stared at from her house for a long time now; she forced herself onward. She heard a splashing sound ahead, and soon she saw a trickle of water making its way over the ground toward her feet. She turned a corner and saw a woman disappearing into a house with a large empty bowl in her hand. Some dogs appeared and licked up the dumped water. Heka walked on, peeping into the woman’s house as she passed. The inside of the house was unremarkable, sparse, and a yeasty smell wafted from it.

Heka was glad to have gone unnoticed, for she felt incredibly out of place. But she passed several other homes that were almost identical to the first. The homes were so similar that she soon found she was lost. Every street looked the same and every corner was indistinguishable from the last. Her breath became shorter and the walls closer. She stopped to get her bearings and a man appeared.

“The market..?” she asked, self-conscious of her accent, which she knew to be disparate from the dialects of the courtyard people.

He pointed, then continued on briskly, on his way somewhere.

She walked on in the direction the man had pointed, and indeed she finally heard the din of raised voices and general commotion. She turned a corner and paused to look upon a scene that frightened her: people were crowded around kiosks and traders’ booths calling out to each other and haggling. Some wermadn held babies on their hips or in their arms, and some of the babies or their siblings cried, but all the while their mothers screamed at a trader or salesperson. Men leaned against walls smoking and grinning, sometimes in small groups laughing or gesturing. Traders hollered and promised, made suggestions and demands. The chaos of this place was almost more than Heka could bear. She longed to be back in her own house, weaving on her loom or enjoying a peaceful brew at the back of the house where she was shielded from the goings on of the road.

“Where is she?” a man’s voice said, close enough to Heka’s ear that she could feel his breath on her cheek. “When will she return?”

She whirled around to see Nannum standing next to her, his face ruddy with anger and his eyes bulging out at her. She drew away from him, fearful and defensive, but he stepped closer to her still looking demanding and expectant of her answer.

“Lada! Where is she? She took my boy!” Nannum insisted.

Heka, whose sense was temporarily displaced after forcing herself into such unfamiliar and cacophonous surroundings, searched her brain for an answer. “Gone,” she finally uttered.

“Heka, where?”

She felt indignant now, with his hot breath on her and his close proximity, and his omission of her rightful title, Matta. “Nannum, step away from me,” she demanded.

He looked a little shocked at her commanding tone – perhaps Heka’s voice reminded him of his own Matta, a faithful wermad –, but after a brief reprieve during which his face relaxed, the anger returned. He regained his threatening air.

“Lada’s life is her own,” Heka continued. “She is gone. …They all are gone.”

Now, in a moment of transparency, Nannum glanced down at what was in his arms, which Heka saw was a satchel of cloth. The cloth was familiar to her, and it finally occurred to her that it was Erua’s cloth, which Nannum had no doubt acquired through some unsavory means. The cloth was brilliant red, and peeked out of Nannum’s bag like a dribble of blood on a dusty surface. Heka pictured Erua at work, mixing her dyes carefully and standing over a large vessel of wool and water; she and Tait would take turns stirring the pot, which looked to be filled with blood.

It was not blood. It was a dye Erua and Pana had created using fruit they had found in the forest. Ixi would collect a mass of it from further into the woods, and bring it to them periodically. Once Erua had engineered the dye and had colored a large amount of wool, she and Mabal had woven stunning belts for the girls, like the one Lada had been wearing when she left Mens. They dyed several sheets of cloth, too, with the intent of making tunics from them. Thinking of how this cloth had ended up in Nannum’s hands both disturbed and angered Heka.

He stomped off and disappeared into the gaggle of people, and Heka was left standing alone feeling vulnerable and out of place. Her feet, now standing on the edge of an ancient slab of rock that had been placed there before even Nanna Gedda was born, were tempted to run from this place, but she did not allow them to. She had not done what she came to do, and would only have to come back to finish the job. And she preferred never to have to come back to this place.

She fell in line with some other onlookers and shoppers and browsed the kiosks, trying to blend in. She did not have to linger for long until she caught sight of a thick group of youngsters. Heka scanned the boys’ faces and finally found Selm.

Selm and his friends were engaged in a spirited game, so Heka hesitated to interrupt them and draw attention to herself among such a group of playmates. She stood and watched, trying not to look suspicious for many long moments during which she was bumped and nearly trampled by several harried shoppers.

After a long time Heka felt a tug on her tunic and looked down to see little Sera’s sweet, smiling face looking up at her.

“Sera,” Heka said, stooping down, “How nice to see you!”

“Come!” said Sera, taking Heka’s hand and leading her away.

Sera led Heka to a house identical to those she had passed on her way to the marketplace. Inside the house a young woman mopped her forehead with the back of her arm over a hot hearth, a hive-shaped clay construction from which bread could be birthed. The same yeasty aroma Heka had smelled coming from the other houses was strong here, too. The woman looked toward the door and greeted Heka with a friendly but confused countenance.

Sera said, “Mama, this is Matta Heka. She lives over the road.”

Now, Heka would have been given away, even without wearing a colorful tunic or opening her mouth to reveal her difference. Her distinction of Matta and her home described as “over the road” would tell this woman all she needed to know to distinguish what Heka was. Heka watched the woman’s face closely, for among some of the courtyard folk, Mattas were unwelcome outsiders, now a minority among Mens’s population, regarded with suspicion.

But the woman’s face remained pleasant. “How lovely! Please sit. I have some bread almost ready. Come.” She seated Heka and Sera at the table and poured bowls of water for them. Heka was confused by the shape of this woman’s bowls. Her bowls were not breast-shaped, like those of the Matta’s, but were cylindrical, like a hollowed-out tree stump. Heka watched Sera take a sip from hers and followed her example cautiously.

“How very kind of you. Sera and Selm are friends of my daughter, Lada. They are kind enough to accompany Lada when she walks to my home sometimes,” said Heka.

The woman looked a little confused. “You are Nannum’s wife?”

“Oh, no! No. I am not a wife. But all the Mattas are family.”

This seemed to confuse the woman even further, but she silently chalked it up to harmless cultural disparities and relaxed the muscles in her face. She served Heka and Sera some water and sat down with them at the table. “I am Etar.”

“My name is Heka.”

They sipped from their cups.

“I came to the market today for the first time,” said Heka.

Etar did not betray any surprise, though this must have seemed quite strange to her. “Did you trade anything?” she asked, though Heka had come in empty-handed.

“No. I was looking for Selm.”

Etar waited patiently for an explanation.

Heka continued. “My sisters, the Mattas, have now left this place. They are gone from Mens.”

Again, Etar waited patiently through Heka’s pauses.

“Beside mine, there is a larger, empty house.”

Etar slightly leaned in. She was beginning to see now why Heka had come in search of Selm, and Heka knew now that she had intuited correctly. A courtyard woman would be interested in a better living situation, one in which she would not be squeezed in between so many others.

Heka went on. “Someone will eventually take the residence. I know not what kind of neighbor such a person would be. I do not know anyone in the courtyard of Mens. But it would be not unpleasant to have such lovely children as Selm and Sera living next door.”

Etar’s face was bright now that the confusion of having such a novel visitor had been erased. Sera touched her mama’s hand. “Mama, I have seen the house Matta Heka speaks of. It is a roomy house with a fine hearth. It is over the road.”

Etar cupped her daughter’s chin and smiled, saying to Heka. “I must talk to my husband. He will decide. But, I would be happy to live in such a house. And with a kind neighbor. I thank you, Heka, for seeking us out. You are welcome in our house anytime.”

Etar suddenly remembered the bread baking, and jumped up from her seat to retrieve it. She served it hot to Sera and Heka, and Heka found that it was fortifying and tasty. She was sure it had been made from Hebe’s grains, as most of the courtyard people’s bread was.

After thanking Etar for her hospitality, Heka made to depart. But when she asked for directions out of the courtyard village, it was decided that Sera would walk Heka home. Holding little Sera’s hand while the girl skipped along over the stony pavement or dusty lanes comforted Heka, as did the thought that she had made a new friend. Heka liked Etar, for Etar seemed sincere and uncomplicated. Heka looked forward to seeing her new friend again, and by being surrounded by Etar’s sweet children.

Still, they were no substitute for Heka’s own family, and she acutely felt their absence when Sera had left her alone in her house where she made a small meal that she ate alone. Long ago, she had situated her loom across from the window by her sleeping bench, for when the sun was high its light found the loom through the window. Now, she worked the fabric on the loom, though the going was slow now that she did not have a partner to help catch the shuttle on the other side of the width of the cloth.

She bided her time pleasantly enough for the rest of the sun, nibbling on the red berries again at the edge of the forest while the descending sun’s rays drenched the meadow, drinking her comforting brew sitting on the bench at the back of her house, then sweeping the floors of the house before retiring. She did not drink a brew out of doors as she had done every moon for so long, and she nearly forgot to mark her moonstick as a result of abandoning her ritual. But, finally satisfied that there was nothing else to do, Heka fell into a deep and long sleep.

She woke late the next morning, for there were no scrambling children to wake her. She tried to keep herself at her loom, but weaving all alone suddenly felt like work, and did not afford her the joy to which she was accustomed. She sighed and looked toward the door. She had hoped to hear Selm and Sera exploring the house next door with their parents, but they stayed away. Perhaps they would not come at all. Eventually idleness caused drowsiness, and Heka retired to her sleeping bench where she lay sleepy but restless for a long time before she drifted off into her dreams.

In the morning she remembered that she had forgotten to mark her moonstick the night before, and after doing so, resolved to resume her ritual of nightly brew, if for no other reason than to remember her moonstick. They were two rituals who were closely entwined, and she concluded that she could not separate them. She spent the day in the meadow collecting berries she would dry for eating in the fast approaching cold season. She spread her collection between two cloths in the sun to let them dry. When they had dried, she would store them in the submerged vessel in the floor of her house. It was a large clay vessel whose belly lay deep in the ground to keep food cool and fresh. Heka had already stored some cereals there she had collected from the forest with Pana. Pana and Mabal had found a stand of these cereals not far into the woods, and had prayed to them and cultivated them. Recently, they had reached their period of ripeness, and could be collected before drying up and breaking off, littering the ground with their seeds that would give way to next season’s plants. The wermadn had thusly formed a relationship with this stand, and, thinking of her harvest stored safely underground, Heka whispered a little prayer of gratitude.

When the sun had set and the moon was clear, Heka began to boil water at her hearth. She plunged her hand into the bundle Nansh had given her and pinched a very little bit of the dried mixture. It was the smallest amount of brew she had ever made, and it saddened her. Her sadness intensified with her disappointment in Etar. Not only had Heka failed to form a friendship, she would have to return to the marketplace to restart her mission. The thought of it made her tired and almost breathless.

She did not perch on the outside bench while she sipped her brew; instead, she leaned against the threshold and cut her eyes into the darkness. She stood like that for some time, sipping her brew and listening to the din of Mens fading, and just as she began to turn away, having drunk the last drop of brew, a light appeared in the alleyway on the opposite side of the road. Heka withdrew a little, fearful, but soon heard Selm’s sweet voice and saw his face materialize out of the dark.

“Matta Heka!” he called.

“Good moon, Selm! How good to see you!” she replied.

Now Heka could see that a burly man accompanied Selm. The man had a kind enough face, but a darkness was on his brow. He carried a torch.

“Papa wants to see the house, Matta Heka.”

“Come! Come! This way,” Heka said, depositing her empty bowl nearby.

The man followed Heka, but did not introduce himself right away. He was a quiet man, and he seemed to take comfort that his young son was so loquacious.

“I am Matta Heka.”

“I am Sahel.”

“Why have you come at night? I wish you could see the house in the light,” Heka said.

“I work grinding grains until the sun is gone,” Sahel said.

“Do you work with Hebe?”

“Yes.”

“Come,” Heka said, “the house has much space.”

Heka brought her own torch, too, and she showed them the buried storage vessel in the hearthroom of the empty house, as well as the ladder at the back that led to the roof, just like that in her own house. Heka’s house and Nansh’s house were nearly identical, having been built long ago at the same time.

“This house is a strong one. It is an old house,” Sahel said, putting his hands on a wall.

“My people built this house long ago,” Heka said.

Selm drifted to a wall to which Nansh and Mabal’s loom was attached. They had left it behind, and now the boy fondled it reverently. “A loom! Like yours, Matta Heka.”

“Yes, this belonged to my friends. Now your Matta can use it, Selm.”

Sahel spoke up: “My wife does not weave.”

Heka took an inward look at all the possible responses she might have to this firmly delivered statement of Sahel’s, and decided to keep them close to her heart for now.

When his examination of the interior and exterior of the building was complete, Sahel seemed to have begun to look positively on the prospect of moving to this house. It was decided that he would send Etar over to begin the preparations at sunrise.

Heka did not volunteer to assist Etar, but she kept silent, for something about this man made her self-conscious. She sensed that she trod uneven, fragile ground on which she must not go too far, for there were dangers in the fog. Sahel’s ilk of man was unlike Ixi, Bethid, or any of the Bahartr. She would have to remember to step carefully around Sahel, whose brooding, prickly exterior probably imitated what lay underneath.

Heka felt like a spider watching Selm trailing his father and turning around to smile at Heka just before disappearing into the dark corridors of the courtyard buildings. She turned from her doorway with a curve on her lips, for she was thinking what a fine boy Selm was, and how unaware he was that he would soon change. He would soon encounter what was now to him extraordinary and foreign, and afterward would find himself unrecognizable.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Nansh

Lately, Hina’s eyes seemed ever on Mabal and Bethid. She observed them lazing by the fire pit and looked on for several moments even after the couple had disappeared into the forest. Nansh, watching Hina from deep inside her little medicine hut, felt a curiosity growing.

Hina wandered into the hut and began to work alongside Nansh. Nansh put down the herbal bundles she was tying together to suspend from the crossbeams overhead. She reached out for Hina, tucking a lock of brown hair behind Hina’s ear and saying, “Let us make a special brew, little Matta.”

Hina’s sad eyes lit up a little, and she kept close to Nansh, invigorated by the possibility of learning.

Nansh took a bowl covered in cloth from a bench near the window. “This is a moon brew,” she said. Next, she retrieved her moonstick. “Look,” she said, pointing to a round mark, “When the moon was new it brewed this.” She gestured to the bowl. “The moon’s light – Ma’s light – streams through this window generously.”

She left the stick in Hina’s hands and poured the brew into two bowls. Hina sat down and sipped from her bowl, but Nansh stayed standing, fearful of invoking Heka, whose absence was so acutely felt. Hina pined for Heka, as Nansh did, but now was the time to make new traditions and for the wermadn to make themselves useful.

So, rather than sit beside Hina as she had always done with Heka, Nansh went back to her tall worktable. She leaned onto it resting her elbows and taking occasional sips from her bowl. “This brew is special because it was brewed on a new moon. Drinking it will awaken your wermad, Matta Hina.”

“There is much I don’t know, Matta Nansh. I have to learn.”

“Some things you can only learn by doing.”

Hina took a very long draught of her moon brew and Nansh of hers. It was a refreshment Nansh’s throat welcomed on this warm sun.

“We shall have a ceremony on this moon,” Hina said, indicating a shallow mark on Nansh’s moonstick, which she now took to Nansh. “In the yoni grove. Not in the courtyard.”

“No babies will be born in Mann during the hot season, then,” Nansh remarked.

“No,” Hina said. “Babies will be born to us when the rain comes, and when the forest is filled with blue flowers.”

Hina looked like a child in this moment. She had put the bowl down on the bench beside her and sat examining the moonstick. Her moonstick in the temple would look the same as Nansh’s. All the wermadn of Mann had returned to consulting the moon in all they did, and the moon now governed their menses uniformly.

“You have only Azul between you, Cadda, Lada, and Pana,” Nansh reminded Hina.

“Azul will not be invited to the yoni grove. I have other plans for him.”

Nansh kept silent, and Hina moved to leave the hut. She brought her empty bowl to Nansh and kissed her on the cheek. “Ma will provide, Matta Nansh.”

And in a moment Nansh was left alone with her thoughts. There was silence in Mann just now, and in the hut there was only the little brushing sounds of Nansh bundling her herbs and hanging them to dry in the dark corners of the space.

For Nansh there had only been the foreign boy from long ago. Almost as many moons as Cadda and Pana had been alive. He had been chosen for a horned moon ceremony when Nansh was Hina’s age. Mabal had been with Nansh, and Heka and Erua. Niav had been there with Nannum. And Ixi had been there, too. And Hebe.

Since then, Nansh had watched her sisters form little partnerships with the Bahartr of Mens. Her sister, Mabal, had Bethid. Heka had Ixi. Niav had chosen Nannum. But Nansh stood alone while the memory of the foreign boy grew more and more faded, though sometimes she would catch a glimpse of him in Cadda’s eyes or Pana’s gait.

She moved into the doorway of her hut and locked eyes with Ixi for a pregnant moment. She retreated to the shadows of the hut now, and Ixi was at her side after only a moment.

“Bahartr, Hina will hold a ceremony under a horned moon.”

Ixi was silent. Like Hina, Ixi was quick to comprehend and, though not loquacious, he wasted no time wordlessly making plans. He knew what was needed.

“I will go to Mens. To Heka,” Ixi said.

“Take this,” Nansh said. She tied off the cloth bundle she had been packing and handed it to him.

He put one hand on the nape of her neck and touched his forehead to hers. Then, he was gone. Ixi would be in Mens and enjoying Heka’s hospitality by the next sunup.

 

Chapter Seventeen: Gedda

With his sharp woodsman’s eyes, Ixi saw Nanna before she meant to make herself seen. His gait slowed and he kept his gaze on her. She stepped out of her waiting place and greeted him, kissing him and clasping his hands in hers.

“This wermad is going to Mens,” she said.

“I promised Nansh I would see Heka. Hina plans a ceremony for the next horned moon,” Ixi said.

Nanna smiled proudly. “Good. That is good.”

They stood in silence for several moments while Nanna, with her eyes shut, lifted her face to the sun, enjoying its warmth. She opened her eyes and touched Ixi’s shoulder. “Do not go to Mens, Bahartr Ixi. It will surely break her heart to let you go again.”

Ixi looked downward now, his face wearing an expression of guilt. He knew Nanna Gedda was right.

He reached into his satchel and produced Nansh’s packet that was meant for Heka. “Will you give this to her, Nanna?”

Nanna took the bundle and held it to her nose. A look of recognition and a smile came over her face. “This wermad will.”

They embraced again and Ixi disappeared into the woods in a southeastern direction while Nanna turned and walked westward.

Her going was slow, for she passed a stand of what Nanna Panlat had referred to as moonleaf. Heka would be happy to have the leaves, which she would use to color wool and whatever other fibers she chose. So, Nanna plucked as many grandchildren leaves as she could fit into a little purse she carried inside her satchel, and she reverently left behind a chip of goat dung at the foot of the Nanna moonleaf plant.

She could not reach Mens before the sun gave way to the moon, so she camped under the stars in a very small clearing. She hid herself under a crude lean-to made of twigs and leaves, and smiled upon hearing the woods’ nocturnal denizens creeping past her in the dark. She fell asleep quickly, and started out early the next morning when the world was gray, for the sun was not yet fully born.

Nanna strolled into Mens when the sun’s rays burst in straight, bright tubes through the sparse spaces between the houses. She knitted her brows to smell the aroma of food and fire coming from the house that had been Nansh and Mabal’s. It had quickly become occupied after the Mattas’ departure, then, which raised melancholy in Nanna Gedda.

Heka’s house was quiet and empty. She had not yet risen; Nanna found her snoozing on her sleeping bench in spite of the brightness of the morning. Nanna did not wake her. She crept to the hearth and tried to be silent as she raised a fire there to get water boiling. While she waited for the water to bubble, she strolled over to the loom, affixed to the wall and displaying a good amount of work that had been done since Nanna’s last visit, before the Mattas’ exodus from Mens.

The cloth that stretched across the loom was made mostly of undyed plant thread, but a stunning occasional stripe of color that was like the evening sun was woven in expertly. This cloth would make a lovely tunic or blanket that would be welcomed in the cold season that was hastily on its way.

Nanna Gedda was reminded now of the moonleaf she had brought her daughter. She retrieved those leaves, now shriveled, and stepped out to the back of the house. She built a fire in the little pit there, and poured water into a large clay dying pot. She left this water to reach boiling while she went back into the house where the first pot’s water was now bubbly. Nanna pinched some of the brew Nansh had sent, sprinkled it into the boiling water, and let the aroma fill the air of the house.

The fragrance woke Heka, who smiled when she saw her Matta.

“This wermad was fearful – fearful you were angry with your Matta, daughter,” Nanna whispered when Heka embraced her tightly and lovingly.

“No, Matta. No. I have missed you. I have been lonely, but I understand now. You will be proud,” Heka said. And she told Nanna Gedda all about how she had befriended Etar and Etar’s lovely children. “And Selm has many friends in the courtyard, Matta.”

Nanna smiled as she squeezed Heka’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. They drank their brew together side by side in the hearthroom, and Nanna answered all Heka’s questions about Hina, Bara, and Ista, Nansh, Mabal, and all the others.

“Come,” Nanna said, “This wermad brought you moonleaf for coloring your thread. Come.”

They sat in comforting quiet for a long time, Nanna preparing the dye, distributing the moonleaves into the water and stirring it calmly while Heka depulped some dried stalks piled nearby. She crushed each bare stalk and split it, running her thumb along the inside of each to ferret out the seeds and pith within, which was deposited into a vessel on the ground beside her. The collected pith would be used later as an offering Heka would leave where she had collected these stalks at the edge of the forest.

Both wermadn were comforted by the presence of the other, and by the work they had chosen to do. Theirs were two tasks that complemented and depended upon the other.

They worked on in silence for a good while until Nanna’s voice broke through the quiet. “Daughter,” she said, “This wermad is glad you are not alone. You were wise to bring Etar’s family to Nansh and Mabal’s house. You may have never realized the danger you have been in. This wermad, this Matta, will now tell you.”

Heka did not look up at her Matta, but continued with her work. She had finished depulping the plant stalks, and now she began to separate the woody part from the precious fibers.

“This story is about the disappearance of Matta Wedda,” Nanna said.

Now, there was a pregnant pause. Nanna continued her stirring but did not take her eyes off her daughter. Heka’s arms remained engaged in a pretty dance with the stalks and the fibers, her arms sometimes reaching up high over her head to pull the fibrous part of the stalk away from its woody pith, until eventually she paused and looked out over the landscape.

Nanna started her story: “Wedda was a pretty wermad. Her hair was the color of the trees’ leaves just before they surrender to the cold. Erua has the same hair. Ixi has Wedda’s eyes, doesn’t he?

“Wedda was a wise wermad, even as a girl her judgement was unfailing. Her Matta before her taught her how to make Lun Ma,” Nanna remembered.

“I remember a little patch of earth by Erua’s house. It was Matta Wedda’s house then. She grew a plant there. You said she was the only one who could grow it.”

Heka’s gaze was still fixed on the tree line before them, across the quiet, empty meadow, but she could hear in her Matta’s next words that the wermad had smiled.

“Yes, she was the only one. And even she failed at times, but she and Panlat worked together. Panlat taught Wedda how to communicate with the plant and hear the plant telling its purpose.”

Now, several quiet moments ensued while Nanna stirred and Heka peeled fibers.

“Something happened to Wedda, daughter. Something terrible. It changed her.”

“I remember that she changed.”

“This terrible thing, this thing that changed Wedda – it changed this wermad, too.” Nanna Gedda’s voice shook now. Heka dared to look at her Matta’s face, which was now streaked with a single tear. But Nanna continued bravely, though both wermad were fearful to go where Nanna was taking them. “It was during the hot season, and Wedda had taken her loom outside, under the trees. Ixi was a small boy then, but even as a small child he loved the forest. Erua had accompanied her brother to find berry stands in the woods. Wedda remembered this particularly because when they returned late, just before the moon appeared, they had startling stains on their fingers and their faces.”

“Matta Nansh and Matta Mabal always say Matta Wedda was perpetually worried henceforth,” said Heka.

“Yes. That’s right.” Nanna wiped a tear from her cheek. “She went inside her house, probably to make some brew or to procure a new skein of thread. But she turned around and there he was. He was a trader. She had met him on the road once. But he came into her house and he took her, Heka. He took her against her will.

“This violation – it caused our retreat. We abandoned our home. We lived on this side of the road, and we left the courtyard to become inhabited by non-believers. This wermad was so fearful…And she is ashamed.”

By now Nanna was weeping, and Heka put down the plant stalks that had come to sit on idle palms while she listened. She went to her Matta and put her arms around her, a gesture that was reciprocated. The two of them stood tearfully holding each other for several moments while the scent of Nanna’s moonleaf dye swirled around them. Eventually, Heka took Nanna inside and made more of Nansh’s consoling and reviving brew.

They sat together at the table in the hearthroom now and Heka asked, “What happened to Matta Wedda afterward? The Mattas say she disappeared, and left Erua and Ixi behind.”

“It is a most wonderful secret, daughter.” Nanna’s next draught took a very long time while Heka’s curiosity hung suspended and expectant, but finally she spoke again, “Wedda grew angry at the fear she felt. She had retreated inside her home, and rarely was seen outside after that. Her children took care of her. And Panlat spent much time with Wedda, too.

“But something snapped, eventually – like a thread that has been stretched too tight. She came to this wermad one moon. She woke this wermad from sleep. She told this wermad that she was leaving. But listen! She went east, daughter. Yes, she went east!”

Heka frowned. “But, Matta, why? Why would she go east? She knew even then of the rising danger in that part of the world. After all, it was an eastern trader who had violated her. And they have violated our home.”

“Those are all the reasons why she went east, child.” Nanna looked excited and inspired. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hands clasped together tightly, as if she bridled limitless energy in her hands. “She went to find our eastern sisters, and to help them. Her plan was to become a healer for wermadn, and thereby spread the knowledge the Mattas have. Our knowledge seems to be forgotten in the East. Wedda believed our knowledge would be an antidote to the poison.”

They sat in thought for a long while until Nanna said, “This wermad knows not what happened to Wedda, but the thought of her inspires me.”

“Do Erua and Ixi know that their Matta went east?”

“They know.”

Again, they sat in silence for many long moments.

“I hope,” said Heka, “that Erua finds peace in Mann.”

“Yes. Her Matta planted a seed of fear that grew strong in Erua, and made her anxious.”

Again, a long stretch of silence ensued.

“Matta,” Heka said, “for so long I have reproached myself for allowing the courtyard to fall away from us, from the Mattas and our children. I have carried that blame, and it has been very heavy.”

“This wermad let you feel that heft, daughter. This wermad regrets it. But, to explain all this to you earlier would have been to plant a seed in you like Erua’s. And her defensiveness stifled her gifts and made her unproductive at times.”

“But it kept her safe.”

“Did it? …And haven’t you been safe, daughter?”

Now the silence was sour and resentful, and the brew was acrid on their tongues.

“For a long, long while this wermad harbored hope of saving our home, our Mens, but it died after Aki died. My heart withered without Aki, and now I wander the forest.”

Heka put her hand in her Matta’s and lowered her head to rest on the table between them, kissing her lips to Nanna’s hand.

“It is such a comfort to be here with you, daughter,” Nanna said, stroking Heka’s hair.

“For me, too, Matta…” Heka’s voice trailed off before she could beg her Matta to stay with her, to come back to Mens and live. For that was an unfair request that would be futile, anyhow.

“You will see your Hina again, Matta Heka.”

Now, Heka raised up, still squeezing Nanna’s hand while she wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her other hand. “I will?”

“Several moons from now you will meet her at Ma’s Womb. It will be after the ceremony under the horned moon.”

Heka began to laugh a little through tears that fell freely now, and Nanna was warmed by her daughter’s renewed glow. Heka was a most attractive wermad, with features that were warm and inviting. Little Bara had inherited her Matta’s beauty, and Nanna could see Bara in Heka’s face presently, for they had the same dewy dark brown eyes and alluring lips that curled up beguilingly when they were happy.

Nanna tenderly palmed her daughter’s jaw now and smiled back at the lovely face whose eyes gazed at her. “Come, daughter, let us make a meal.”

And they did.

They were delighted when Etar, Selm, and Sera came for a visit, and Nanna and Heka fed them the nutritious foods they had prepared. Nanna brought Etar to the large dye pot outside, and showed her the product of the moonleaf. After Nanna and Heka extracted the moonleaves, they let the children place a bundle of well-dried fibers in the pot. The children shook with the anticipation of returning the next sun to see how the fibers had changed colors. It was an art form they were completely unfamiliar with, though Etar remembered her mama dying sheep’s wool when Etar was a young girl about Sera’s age.

“Sheep’s wool is fine for dyeing,” Heka said, “but these are fibers from the dried stalks at the edge of the woods. See.”

And Heka showed Sera, who stepped forward curiously and sidled up close to Heka, the process of squeezing the stalks and extracting their fibrous contents. Then, Heka explained how pulling the fibers through a stone comb would soften them for dyeing and weaving. Selm, who already considered himself a master of this art, stepped forward to demonstrate for his young sister. Heka put her stone comb in his hands and he pulled the fibers through repeatedly to make them soft and workable. Sera was delighted to see how such a simple action could change the stringy fibers into something like wool. To her, it was magic. Nanna retrieved Bara’s smaller stone comb from inside the house for Sera to use, and soon the children were busy competing with each other to see who could comb for threads the fastest. Nanna laughed and patted Sera’s head saying, “Children! Why be in a hurry? What a wonderful sun this is. Stretch it out as long as you can.”

Finally, the visitors departed with promises they would return the next day to see the moonleaf wool. When the house was quiet again Nanna and Heka went about tidying things and talking as if nothing had changed, even though they acutely felt the absence of the children.

When the moon was high in the black sky Nanna and Heka enjoyed another bowl of brew outside. They were both wrapped in shawls as the nights now had grown to be quite chilly.

Nanna stared straight forward into the darkness and said, “Selm is a fine boy. He will not be the same after the horned moon.”

“No, Matta.” Heka smiled.

 

Chapter Eighteen: Pyrq

In bustling Mens Pyrq and Zakar were unable to secure a meeting with Hebe, the woman who traded sought-after cereals. Long ago Ahur had helped her first disseminate the grains, and people far and wide requested them, for Hebe’s grains remained unspoiled for a very long time and made nourishing bread. Now, the woman was too busy to meet with every trader. She employed several people to harvest and thrash the cereals, and she spent half her time overseeing those people and half her time meeting with traders. When Pyrq’s band arrived in Mens, Hebe was taking audiences with traders one-by-one, and there was a lengthy line outside her house, where she conducted all her business.

Frustrated, Pyrq and Zakar stomped off into the marketplace at the center of the village, deep within its meandering alleyways. In this village they could acquire the Ma worshipers’ beautifully dyed cloth if they were lucky. They found Ahur’s friend, Nannum the brick maker and occasional cloth trader, who greeted them warmly.

Nannum showed them his store of cloth, which was very limited. “The Mattas will no longer trade their cloth. What you see here is the last of it.”

“Bah!” Zakar said. “Everyone has their price. What will the Mattas trade for? What do they need? We can surely acquire it and trade for this cloth, which rivals that of the southern seas. Our trader friends who frequently go south find exquisite fabric by the ocean, but none so fine as this.”

“They need nothing. And they have left this place, anyway. They have gone to settle deeper into the forest, where auroch hunters once camped,” Nannum told. “They will probably die there,” he added dismissively.

Given the paucity of his inventory, Nannum set a very high price on what few pieces of colored fabric he could offer. Pyrq paid the price, but only for the red cloth, for it would be valuable to the Bael, and bringing it home would put Pyrq and Zakar in high favor with their leader.

Nannum did not have to be reminded to assist these traders in the handling of the red cloth, for the Bael’s people were disallowed to touch the color red, which to them was like blood. Nannum seemed dismissive of their beliefs and customs, but Pyrq was very happy with the dried meat, handful of vessels, and black glass he had received in return for the fabric.

When the transaction was complete, Nannum clasped arms with the traders, and Pyrq and Zakar returned to the spot on the edge of town where their band had set up camp. The sun was now descending on Mens, and the village’s activity was beginning to die down. The traders enjoyed their pipes by the fire.

But even as his colleagues were relaxing and gearing down for a good night’s rest, Pyrq’s mind was very active. “Uncle, we should go to the new village, where the Mattas now live. If we befriend them before other traders do, we will have top choice of their cloth, and whatever else they make that is of value.”

Zakar and the other traders were tired; that much was obvious to Pyrq. Zakar, who was reposed on the ground, leaned back on his elbow and yawned. “We shall see, Pyrq,” he said. Pyrq knew that Zakar was uninterested in extending their already arduous routes.

Pyrq was unsatisfied with his uncle’s response, but he accepted it for the time being. He’d work on his uncle and the others more effectively tomorrow, after they had all had a decent sleep.

The next morning, Pyrq rose early, long before the others awoke, and he disappeared from the camp for a long time. When he returned, he announced that he had been the first in line at Hebe’s door. Over his shoulder he carried a large sack of grains, which one of the other men would be put in charge of measuring out evenly among identical vessels.

After depositing the sack in the traders’ cart, Pyrq sat down with his comrades to eat the food they had prepared while he was away. Zakar looked at Pyrq with a measure of suspicion.

“Men,” Pyrq said, “our business here is concluded. We can move on now. We should go to the newly formed community of Mann. We can acquire valuable goods there, as well as the friendship of the Mattas before other traders do.”

Zakar stayed silent, probably because he could not think of an argument to wield. After a long pause the other men stood, stretching their arms and waking up their muscles. “Alright,” one of them said. “It won’t hurt just to see if this stop is going to be good for us. If it’s not, we don’t return to it.”

But after speaking with Hebe Pyrq was more convinced than ever that a stopover in Mann would be lucrative, for the pilgrims of Mann included a master potter and her protégés, or Ma Mas as the members of the Ma cult called them, as well as a weaver and a dyer. It seemed to Pyrq that the quality and novelty of the Ma worshipers’ goods would turn an enormous profit, and he had the idea to obtain something very special for the Bael’s new bride.

Nannum pointed the band in the direction of the old hunting camp. His uncertainty embarrassed Pyrq in front of Zakar and the other traders, who all looked askew at Pyrq as if to threaten him. It was not only foolish but dangerous for them to be wandering around in a strange forest, for they were unfit for forest survival if that is indeed what it came down to. But Pyrq threw his chin up and moved on, and Zakar and the others fell in line. Where they would normally head south from Mens, they now turned their steps westward. Pyrq pushed out of his mind the encounter he had had when last he found himself on that southern path.

It would take them two suns to get to Mann, for there was no path to it, and their cart would slow them down. But they just needed to keep heading west. “Follow the path of the sun,” Nannum had advised.

So, they did. To salvage his reputation Pyrq walked ahead of the cart carriers beating out a path and removing large stones. It helped a great deal, and Zakar even admitted he believed they were making better time than was originally anticipated, but that night beside their campfire deep in the woods, they all groaned when they moved. Their muscles were sore and the older men’s bones creaked. They didn’t bother with the tents that night, for they all fell asleep beside the fire. Someone, probably Zakar, must have woken in the middle of the night, stoked the fire, and brought forth sleeping skins, for Pyrq woke in the dawn warm and cozy underneath one, the fire still crackling. The blaze would have prevented unwanted visitors such as wolves and insects from invading.

When Pyrq moved his body ached, so he was slow to crawl out from under the warm skin at dawn, but he was anxious to get to Mann now that they were so close. He hoped it would be a quick transaction so he could get back to the Village of the Bael before the Bael’s wedding. Pyrq brought the fire up a little and began to cook the traders’ morning meal. He fried a bean paste they had acquired in Mens into little patties just as his father, Ahur, had shown him. That seemed like a very long time ago now.

The men began to stir when they smelled the food, and, like Pyrq, they groaned when they moved. They were mostly silent eating around the fire, but they had slept very well. Pyrq watched Zakar very closely, and was pleased when his uncle stood and stretched, and began the short process of dismantling the camp.

They carried on until the sun was at its highest point in the sky, then they paused for a midday meal. The woods were peaceful, and the traders seemed to enjoy their respite deep in the trees. They had found something of a path, which encouraged them and made the going easier.

Pyrq was drawn deeper into the trees; he wandered away from the others while he nibbled on the dried meat he carried. He looked back at his group – Zakar was stretched out on a large boulder, his face upward toward the light of the sun, which was sparse here in the trees, and the others sat on and near the cart focusing on their vittles and passing a bladder of water back and forth – careful not to lose his way. He was scared to get too far away, but he felt there was something to be found further in the trees. When he was several steps away from the others he heard it: a trickling sound that beckoned to him.

He went toward it and found a spring surrounded by large mossy rocks and towering, healthy water-fed trees. He looked around; he was indeed alone. He looked behind him and was still confident he knew how to get back to the others; he wasn’t that far away. He tried to relax a little, biting into his food and resting on a rock, but he felt an eeriness. He felt almost like he had been here before, though he knew he had not. Still, these trees were quite familiar.

He spent what felt like a long time looking up at the trees, especially those with white bark, of which there were a few. These were not as numerous as the needled trees that were so thick here, but it was the white trees who shouldered their way toward him and swayed their golden leaves over his head. He felt strangely threatened, and even a little light-headed. He looked away from the ghostly trees and shook his head. He splashed some spring water into his face, and hurried back to join the others before they started to miss him. He stumbled a little as he clambered down off the rock, for he was suddenly anxious to be away from this strange, unknown place. He stubbed his toe, but managed to catch himself before he fell. Still, his toe throbbed and he hopped a little on his unhurt foot to avoid putting weight on the hurt one. Before he became visible to his group Pyrq forced himself to walk normally. He couldn’t afford, nor could his band, to be injured at this point in their journey that he alone had been so anxious to embark upon. When he took his place out in front of the troop where his back was to them, he let himself wince when he bore weight on his injured toe.

His injury did slow them down a little, but he was able to keep it hidden from the others. And, finally, in the dusk of the forest, which had been quite dark since long before the sun was completely set, a fire could be descried through the trees. Pyrq was relieved and full of nervousness all at the same time.

He stopped and turned to his band. The cartmen put down their burden, and Zakar and Pyrq came close to them, forming a circle. Zakar suggested he and Pyrq go find a leader of this community, thereby paving the way for the others and their intent to trade. They all agreed, so Zakar and Pyrq picked their way through the trees into a very small clearing while their fellow travelers stayed behind to set up camp before darkness completely overtook them.

The community was a tidy one: just a few houses and a circle of stones with a merry fire blazing in the center. Two men were reposed before the flames, and they were jolly in both their demeanor and their tone, for they were laughing when Zakar and Pyrq came out of the darkness. The younger man, who Pyrq took to be not much younger than himself, looked up and saw them. The young man barely moved from where he was, but his eyes told his companion to turn his head and see who approached.

The older man, a handsome and sinewy man who was about Zakar’s age, looked over his shoulder and, to Pyrq’s surprise, he smiled. “Hello, friends!” he called. He spoke in the same dialect and accent as Hebe and Nannum.

“Come sit by our fire, travelers,” the younger man invited.

Pyrq felt at ease, and he gladly walked forward to the fire. Zakar did the same. They took their places on the rocks with the other men.

“What brings two men out of the forest at the time of the moon?” the older man asked.

Zakar said, “We are traders. We have come directly from your home village of Mens. We are with two other men who are camping in the trees, just there.” He pointed to the direction from which they had just emerged. The traders’ own fire would be seen there soon.

“I am Ixi,” said the older man. “This is Azul.”

Pyrq felt compelled to put his own voice forward. “I am Pyrq. This is my uncle, Zakar.”

“Uncle?” muttered Azul. But his query went ignored, for the other man deemed other business far more pressing.

“Friends, any visitors to this place must first worship at our temple with our Matta,” said Ixi.

Ixi had motioned toward a little building beyond. It was presently dark inside but for a very faint glow, perhaps a solitary candle.

“Come,” said Azul, “I will take you to our Matta.”

Pyrq and Zakar followed the young man, who ushered them into the dimly lit temple where he invited them to sit by a hearth, a central round pit surrounded on one side by a half-circle short wall of clay. Pyrq’s eyes were drawn to the vessels that were scattered around the room. In the dimness, he could not see them clearly, but he was sure fascinating designs danced around their pregnant middles and around the lips of some. There were colors here, he was sure, even though the lack of light would not allow his eyes to know, but he grew excited because this village may have many red bijoux and cloth the Bael would cherish.

He apparently was right. Two women entered by the same door Pyrq and Zakar had; they were dressed in plain tunics, but wore brilliant scarlet belts whose color could even be discerned in the dimness.

Now, though, Pyrq became more anxious. Something about these women’s presence was familiar and frightful to him, though he was determined not to show it to them or to Zakar. He was distraught that he could not see the women’s faces, for they wore masks that looked like birds – owls maybe – and he felt there were answers under those masks. While the masks concealed most of their faces, their mouths were exposed.

One woman picked up a bowl while the other reached for a slender birdlike vessel. She poured water into the other woman’s bowl and said, “Ma is around us, beneath us, and within us. Ma is around you, beneath you, and within you.” She sipped from the bowl, then, smiling, handed the bowl to Zakar. He drank, and handed it back to her. She then put the bowl in the hands of her companion, who sipped from it before handing it to Pyrq.

Her grin was so haunting that Pyrq almost fumbled the bowl. She put her hands around his to steady him, but her touch thrilled him so unexpectedly that he lost consciousness of his movements. He looked into the eyes of the mask in search of answers, but found only shadows. He drank the water, finding it refreshing and awakening.

He found nothing in the face to answer his queries, so he turned his curiosity to the body. He watched her pour more water into the bowl. Her hands moved nimbly and handled the slender pitcher with dexterity. Her assuredness and unwavering gracefulness is what finally made him sure.

“You are our welcomed guests. Bring only life to us. Do not bring death into the circle of stones, which is blessed by Sappur and sacred to Ma. She lives in this place. Go and tell your companions in the forest that they are welcome.”

“We will set up our camp for the night. When the sun rises, we will return to you,” Zakar said after a pause, for Pyrq had gone dumb, and his eyes were wide and childlike.

Pyrq followed Zakar to the camp, afraid his silence would raise suspicion. But, Zakar was mostly silent, too.

The camp proved to be an inviting little spot with the tents already raised and meat sizzling on a spit over a blazing little fire. Their tents were wedged in between the thick trees, but they were so anxious to sleep that night, so no one complained. After their meal of roasted hare, which the other traders told Zakar and Pyrq the sinewy man had brought them, they retired.

But, of course, Pyrq would not sleep. He could think of nothing but the masked face, and he ached to remove what hindered his seeing. But when he imagined removing it, only blankness stared back at him, for she had always been veiled to him. Finally, he rose, as he knew he would, and he crept back to the temple.

She was alone, sitting perhaps in mediation, in the same single candle glow as earlier. She looked up at him and smiled; the mask had been discarded. His feet itched to move forward, which made him want to stomp out in his anger. But his injured toe suddenly throbbed under his indecisiveness, and he felt mortified when he unthinkingly put weight on it and winced before her.

Her tenderness was unshakeable. She came forward and said, “Sit,” pointing to a bench by the wall. He did so out of necessity, for now he was in agony.

He sat and watched what would be the beginnings of her ministrations. She brought a blaze up in the hearth, and its light made Pyrq self-conscious, for now he could be seen here by any passerby.

Next, she brought a vessel to him. She poured its contents into a bowl and handed it to him. He drank while she poured more water out on a cloth she used to wipe his foot clean. She drew his leg over to the length of the bench, and he had to rotate his body over to follow his leg.

He reproached himself for the melancholy he felt watching her move around the room, which she made divine and safe. The sheer beauty of her presence was almost more than he could bear, and he was at once sorry he had found this place and regretful he would have to leave it. He tried to shake his head free of the conflict as he had at the spring in the forest, but it only made him feel more muddled. He took another sip of water to engage any other of his senses for distraction, but this woman was unignorable. Her presence was an intoxicating force, and he did not feel up for the fight.

Finally, she was before him again, and her touch was utter relief. A strange aroma – something she had prepared over the hearth fire – filled the room, his nostrils, his head. It was a very pungent concoction she now applied to his wounded toe. It provided instant relief of pain, and he was more mystified than ever. What magic was this? What magic was she?

She nimbly wrapped a torn cloth around the poultice, and when it was sealed and complete, she lingered there at his feet. She kept one hand on his shin bone, reluctant to move away, but finally she did.

But he hurt at seeing her moving away from him so he grabbed her hand and held it, looking up at her, trying to see her. The fire crackled behind her, so her face was but a darkness he could not stand any longer. He pulled her close to him and put a hand on either jaw. He could smell her now, a mixture of the medicine and earth, and, determined to see her, to identify her, he turned her face toward the light.

And he finally saw her. Her determined eyes were locked with his. Hers were very dark eyes, probably brown. She was not the beauty he had always imagined, but she was alluring nonetheless. Her hair he remembered now: black, long, hanging in a tangled mass at her temples and down her back.

He now realized her hands were fumbling at her waist; she was removing her red belt. He saw it land in a scarlet puddle to the side of his uninjured foot, not quite grazing his skin. He unconsciously moved his foot away from it. She now stood before him, the fire’s light behind her again, outlining her curves still unfortunately housed in her shapeless tunic. He could make out the curve of her breastbone, her waist, and her hips. Between those hips would be the dwelling he had been trying to get back to. He could sense it now.

In one swoop he put his elevated foot on the floor, pulled the hem of his own garment up and she sat atop him. Now he had found what he had been seeking, though he had not been conscious of his search until now. He now felt his maleness as if it were all that existed; inside her, it was no longer an appendage always in danger of being severed. It was now housed as it should be, in this warm cave, a passageway to a mysterious other place.

She moved, but he clutched her hips to still her. As if she knew his thoughts, his dire need, she embraced him, holding his head to her breasts. He felt comforted and a flicker of what must be inspiration (he knew not, for he had never felt this) flared inside his heart. His throat burned and tears threatened his eyes. He pulled away and tried to look at her again, but the shadows the light created made her faceless. So, gingerly and powerfully, he stood with her in his arms. He lay her down on the floor beside the fire and looked upon her as if it was the last time in his life he would see her. He began to move again inside her, not because he wanted to, but because he must.

He was overcome again by her. He could barely move. So, she hoisted herself up and, with his hand on the small of her back he flipped her around to sit astride him while he lay on his back looking up at her.

She rocked back and forth on top of him until he burst. She moaned with a sensuality that broke his very heart. When it was over, he held her so tightly her breathing became labored, so he loosened his grasp. She slid to his side and was careful not to touch his sensitive body, but she kissed him warmly, and he consumed her affection gratefully.

She said nothing, and he was glad, for the sound of words, he felt, would intrude upon their perfectly choreographed silent understanding. He slept beside her all night, and in the morning he was grateful she was near him, for it proved his memory of the preceding night was true and had not been but a dream. She lay on her side, propped up on an elbow poking the fire in the hearth to keep it going. He pulled himself up beside her and held her; she kissed his hand.

She turned to face him. “I am Hina.”

The skins they lay under fell away from her body now, leaving her breasts exposed. He repeated her name, “Hina. …Hina.”

She put a hand on his chest and looked into his eyes expectantly.

“Pyrq,” he said, putting his hand on hers.

She leaned in and kissed him, giving him an opportunity to envelope her in his arms. Her body was a smallish frame, though when she pulled away and walked across the room, and he could take in her full, naked form of which she had no shame or inhibition, he saw that she had wide, fetching hips. Everything about her was familiar but fascinating, and even more pleasing than the fantasies he had reluctantly held fast to since their first encounter on the southern path, in that grove of white trees in the dark.

He knew when he touched her last night that he had touched her body before. His hands remembered her curves, and he remembered her body’s movements in those trees, for his mind had recreated them for his autonomous pleasure. But the fantasies were no substitute for the reality of Hina. ‘Hina,’ he repeated in his thoughts.

“Matta?” a female voice broke in.

A young woman stood in the doorway now. Pyrq pulled the skins over his nakedness, but Hina continued on with her work – pouring water from the bird-shaped vessel into a deeper vessel that she would set over the hearth and sprinkle some dried mixture into – , answering, “Yes, sister.”

The young woman at the door did not seem embarrassed or surprised to see Pyrq there, but her lack of reaction made Pyrq suspicious.

“A man is asking for you. He is a trader.”

“Let us feed our guests, Cadda. Will you tell Azul to prepare a meal?”

“Yes, Matta.” And the woman disappeared.

Hina went about making a brew. Watching her, Pyrq was reminded of his mother for the first time in what seemed like many suns. Febeq was a vision that hid in the recesses of his unconcerned mind until some faded memory brought her forward. Now, she was standing on his brain, but he pushed her back and focused on Hina.

He was suddenly angry at Hina and the young woman intruder who treated his presence so casually, so commonplace. Hina served him the brew in a bowl they shared. While he sipped Hina smoothed his brow, which was furrowed. She smiled so tenderly at him and stroked him with what appeared to him to be such sincere fondness, that his frustration melted away. He wanted to stay with her here in her temple forever. He did not want to go outside where Zakar and the others were waiting. And, most of all, he wanted to keep Hina to himself. He feared the handsome men who greeted him kindly last night. And what other men would they encounter here who worshipped Hina as Pyrq wanted to?

She left the last drops of the brew for him and stood. He wanted to take her again, but was too self-conscious about the wide, open entryway and the uncovered windows of the temple. But he watched closely as she dressed herself, and he tried to remember every movement and the way her face looked when it was not focused on him. And, he thought, perhaps in these moments during which she was involved in some task, he saw her as the others saw her. She was purposeful, intelligent, and divine.

Finally, he rose, dressed, and smoothed out his tunic and hair. He followed her outside into the morning light. Pyrq was embarrassed to emerge from the temple with her, for everyone would know he had spent the night there. But Zakar and the others were happily engaged with the other villagers, and they barely noticed Pyrq’s arrival. Still, though, Zakar did nod at Pyrq and give him a knowing grimace, which contained a flavor of anger that made Pyrq very uneasy. Zakar would think that Pyrq had come here solely for the promise of willing women.

Pyrq and his band were now introduced to several other faces. There were young women of great beauty and their “Mattas”, which Pyrq understood to mean “mother”, or akka. He was unsure why everyone referred to Hina as “Matta” since she appeared to have no children of her own, but he knew she held some special place of honor with all the people. They revered her and referred to her on any decision.

But if she was their leader, their Bael, she was certainly a very humble one. She often deferred her powers to others; she seemed to want to share it. Pyrq thought that such power must be too great a burden for a woman. He compared Hina to his sister, Almah, for they were about the same age – a little older than Pyrq. Almah would certainly fold under such grave responsibilities, and the community would certainly disintegrate. Considering all this, Pyrq concluded that it was very regretful Hina was looked upon to shoulder this terrible onus. He thought that his own presence may provide her with the relief she needed.

He found that he had no appetite, even though his stomach was empty. He could only watch her, and he wanted to be alone with her. He could not converse with his own companions or any of the villagers, for his mind was busy calculating how he could get Hina alone, perhaps in the temple as they were before. He longed painfully for that, and resented the sun peregrinating across the sky, the shadows in the forest changing positions all too rapidly for Pyrq’s comfort.

Pyrq became suddenly self-conscious, for he stood awkwardly and alone, dumbly, but a tall, lovely woman came to his rescue.

“Trader, friend,” she said, lightly putting a graceful hand on his shoulder, “please come have some food with us. My daughters and I have prepared it.”

He let her lead him to the stone circle and began to partake of what she and her daughters offered: nut paste, berries, and fresh water that was yet cool.

The scene was pure conviviality, which was the way of these people, Pyrq was learning. His comrades had had no trouble adjusting to Mann’s leisure, for Pyrq spied them reposing in the shade, their bellies full and their minds without care. They had adopted the posture of some other men who lay nearby discussing hunting and the gathering of food from the bounty that was all around them.

Pyrq felt uneasy; it seemed like betrayal to allow himself to conform to this frivolity. He stalked off to be alone, feeling frustrated and confused. He made a little fire at the traders’ campsite, and sat staring into its flames, but he felt more discontented the longer he looked. This malcontent was not totally unfamiliar, for he remembered feeling it after his first encounter with Hina in the woods to the south of Mann.

Eventually, Pyrq heard a slight rustling from deep in the forest, and it suddenly felt to him that he was hemmed in, vulnerable. He wielded a broken branch he found nearby, but soon found that a weapon was unnecessary, for a slender young woman emerged. She held in her arms a basket, and she edged closer to him, picking her way through the brush, Pyrq could see and smell the basket’s contents: flowers, leaves, some bark, roots.

She took a seat at his fire. She was young, and her face was flushed with exercise. “I am Pana,” she said.

“Pyrq,” he said, putting his hand to his breast. He offered her water from the skin that leaned at his feet.

She refused his water and produced her own vessel of water that had been wedged into the margins of her basket. The mouth of the vessel was covered with a piece of cloth, a length of twine tied around it to keep it in place. She removed this cloth and sipped from it, then offered it to Pyrq. He could smell that what the vessel contained was not merely water, but he drank out of curiosity and politeness. It was a cold brew that, he had to admit, was refreshing and mind-clearing. He felt a bit more at ease after a draught.

“You have been to Mens,” Pana said.

“Yes,” Pyrq agreed.

“And you have been to many other settlements. You know all the peoples to the East.”

“Not all of them. But, yes, many of them.”

“What are my sisters like further east?” she asked.

She stared into the fire as she asked these questions; he felt at a disadvantage because she would not turn her eyes to him. He could not discern her purpose for being here with him. “They are hard-working women, obedient and strong.”

A long pause ensued and he wondered why he had described eastern women in such a way. His mother and sister were not strong; they were weak and in need of protecting. But Pana’s question had made him feel that he needed to defend her eastern counterparts.

Pana finally broke the silence. “The wermadn of Mann are different. There is no ‘obedient,’ nor ‘strong,’ nor weak,” she said, her voice sounding far away and dreamy, but ominous.

She replaced the cloth on her jug, nimbly tying the twine with slim, agile fingers, and stood to go. Now, she looked at him, and he was arrested by her eyes because they were piercing; she was looking through him to his very heart. She merely said, “Farewell,” before turning to disappear into the trees in the direction of Mann.

Pyrq sat in silence for what seemed like a very long time, but eventually his solitude was interrupted by voices that spoke in Pyrq’s own, familiar dialect. It was Zakar and the others returning from the village, tromping through the little strip of forest that separated their camp from Mann. The three of them were unusually spirited while Pyrq felt morose and conflicted.

“Ah! Now I see why you were slow on the trek to Mann, nephew,” Zakar chuckled, pointing to Pyrq’s bandaged foot.

Pyrq tried mostly unsuccessfully to smile while his colleagues remained oblivious to his torment. They announced to him that Ixi would be their guide to a nearby spring where they would collect their day’s water supply, and after a few moments they had once again abandoned Pyrq, who continued to brood by his little fire.

 

Chapter Nineteen: Pyrq

Zakar’s silence made Pyrq uneasy. Inhibited by self-consciousness, Pyrq stopped himself from returning to the temple at night. The traders had come back to their camp after spending the day in Mann, and retired early after eating a small meal; but Pyrq was only able to lie in his tent, sleepless and restless, and tortured by fantasies of Hina, who was so close he could almost smell her scent, but his shame made him powerless to get close to her.

The next morning he woke from a fitful, unrestful sleep long after the other traders had gone into the village. He could hear laughter and jocular voices coming from the village as he lay for several moments staring up at the ceiling of his tent. He finally roused himself awake and rose. His trading partners and his uncle had apparently abandoned Pyrq and their camp for the charming people of Mann who gathered in their stone circle to spend the day leisurely.

Pyrq found Hina standing by the cart, fondling an empty vessel. He watched her for several moments before he made his presence known. She turned it over and over, examining it closely, plain though it was. Finally, she placed it back into the traders’ cart.

“You can have it,” he said, emerging from the trees.

She smiled pitifully and said, “No. Thank you, Pyrq.”

They stood before each other awkwardly; it was an unfulfilled moment of expectation. He wanted to take her in his arms, but she was wearing her red belt.

“I wanted you under the moon again,” she said, and it seemed that her body pointed toward him, but stopped itself at his stiffness.

Her words jarred him. Had she lain awake waiting for him, a discarded tunic to the side of her sleeping mat and the moonlight finding her splendid curves? He hated himself at the thought of this. He felt cowardly and unworthy while her words and her very presence were brave and artless.

His body almost lurched forward to take her in his arms, but he restrained himself at the thought of her red belt, blood around her torso. She saw his eyes landing on her belt and sensed that it was the cause of his hesitation. She ripped it off immediately and threw it to the ground.

In the next moment they were in each other’s arms, and he carried her into his tent where they consummated their desire. Afterward, he lay on top of her, holding her and looking into her face, determined to burn its image into his brain. Perhaps she never considered the passing of time, but he was acutely aware of it because it heralded his departure from this place and the agony he would feel with every footfall that took him eastward. Therefore, he must memorize her and their moments together, and burn her face into his mind as her being was burned into his heart.

She was so lovely lying in the late morning light under his tent. Shadows swayed across their faces as the canopy overhead moved in the breeze. He brushed his hand up and down her face, from her forehead to her throat. He formed a cup with his hand and placed it over her bare breasts, which felt pleasing in his palm. With a grin she moved to raise herself up, but he did not allow her to. He pinned her down and kissed her, not with hunger – for he had been temporarily sated – but with gratitude and admiration, a kind of worship.

She finally uncaged herself from his arms and from the tent, and took a moment to stretch her body. He immediately began to dress himself; he brought her tunic to her. She took it, and began to walk in the direction of the village, but he caught her arm.

“Your belt,” he said, pointing to where it lay.

She picked it up and continued walking.

“Hina,” Pyrq called.

She paused, looked back at him with a warm smile, and then walked back to the village. He hung back, ashamed to walk into the village beside her; she their naked priestess and he an eastern interloper who should be above such seduction as he was experiencing.

He plopped down by the camp’s fire pit and pouted. He was hungry, but too proud to go into the village where everyone would know by now of his relations with Hina. His inhibition made him angry with her. Now, he was the one who was caged.

It was midday before he dared to show his face in the village where Zakar broke away from a group of people to welcome his nephew.

“Oh, Pyrq, wait till you see! Come!” And Zakar led Pyrq to one of the buildings where they went inside without invitation or hesitation.

They walked into what was a smallish room that had a ladder and upper level toward the back. A girl was perched upon that ladder doing some work that was out of view.

Zakar said in an excited and amicable voice, “Ma Ma Tait! I’ve brought my nephew to see your wonderful work.”

The girl stooped down to see who was speaking. She smiled at them with a warm radiance, and her face glowed with genuine friendliness. Pyrq instantly felt a welcoming and ease that only intensified when her pretty little mouth opened to give voice to a sweet, tinkling tone. “Bahartr Zakar!” she said, “You are most welcome.” And she began to descend the ladder to stand amidst her incredible store of pottery, the likes of which Pyrq had never seen.

He looked around in awe, and he had no words. Shelves had been installed in the walls of this building and most of them held the most wonderful and eye-catching vessels. The vessels were colorful and varied – different sizes, shapes, and purposes. Pyrq immediately began to calculate the value of this cache as the Bael’s approving visage floated around his imagination.

After several moments of taking in this scene Pyrq’s eyes landed on a long, slender vessel much like the one Hina had used to serve him in the temple his first night in Mann. It was fashioned to resemble a bird whose bill served as the spout. A simple black band had been painted around the bird’s slender throat.

Tait came forward and stood beside him. “The bird vessels are our Matta Hina’s specialty, and she has made many of them. Please, take it. You probably have a sister at home who would find it pleasing and useful, or perhaps your Matta.”

“Your Matta Hina made this?” Pyrq asked.

“Yes.”

He cupped the vessel’s round belly in his hands. He ran his hands up and down the cylindrical neck of the bird. His thumb bumped along a border of little round protrusions along the bottom. He applied pressure to one and found it sturdy and well-housed.

Zakar’s business-like voice disturbed Pyrq’s reverie, saying, “Ma Ma Tait, what would you accept in payment for a few of your vessels?”

“Payment? No,” she said, her pretty little head tilted.

“We will give you something in return for your work,” Zakar explained.

“Oh, please, take what you want. The wermadn will make more. We make these from the earth, which is Ma’s flesh, and Her flesh is never-ending.”

Zakar and Pyrq exchanged a glance and a thought: these vessels would fetch very high prices at some of the wealthier communities along their routes. And Pyrq knew the Bael would be especially delighted to own such novel property, so different than the utilitarian vessels of his own village, and so very rare in the East.

“Ma Ma Tait, surely there is something we could trade you for your works,” Zakar implored.

Tait smiled her balmy smile and touched his arm, “No, Bahartr.”

She selected a few of her favorite vessels and shoved them insistently into the traders’ arms so that they left with an almost embarrassing trove of exquisite valuables, which they wasted no time carrying to the cart at their camp.

Pyrq’s injured toe had now healed, but on their way back into the village he said to Zakar, “I must stop to consult the Mattas about my foot.”

Zakar merely nodded his head so briefly that it could hardly be noticed, and continued walking on. His uncle’s refusal to acknowledge Pyrq’s relationship with Hina, which could hardly go unnoticed, was curious.

But, now Pyrq was standing outside the temple and could see Hina within. She turned to see him. She was now dressed in a fresh tunic the color of the sky when there were no clouds, and a belt of undyed wool graced her waist. She came toward him and took his hand. She brought him inside and kissed him deeply. He was starting to realize that the man he had been was beginning to disintegrate. The more time he spent with her, the harder it was for him to remember who he had come here as. He found that it felt good to think of different things – the things Mann made him think of – than he had thought of before. But he was disturbed by his old priorities slipping through his fingers like wind.

He pushed her away from him and said, “I need medicine, Matta.”

She hesitated momentarily, but then took his hand. They walked to a building nearby. Even before they entered, Pyrq’s nose was accosted by a barrage of foreign scents. Somewhere within those scents Pyrq discerned the odors of the poultice Hina had applied to his foot that first night, but those vaguely familiar friends were all but drowned out by unfamiliar notes.

It was dim inside this house, for it had but one window, and that window was covered with a piece of light cloth. But there was a hearth with a blazing fire in it, and one woman stood over it stirring something in a pot while another woman stood at a table tying bunches of little branches together to be hanged to dry. These would soon join the bouquets of flowers, leaves and branches hanging from the rafters that traversed the length of the room.

Both women looked up at the couple, and Pyrq became self-conscious that Hina was holding his hand. She was their Matta, and he was but a young man from far away.

But both women smiled warmly at them. The one by the table, a voluptuous woman with a charming round face, put down her work and came to Pyrq. She kindly led him to a bench where she knelt before him to look at his toe.

“Ma has healed you, trader,” she said, pleased, and she beamed at Hina. The woman then went back to her worktable where she dispensed the now familiar poultice mixture into a small piece of cloth that she tied with twine. “You know how to use it,” she said, handing it to Pyrq.

He took it from her, but it worried him. Pyrq was now unhappily reminded of the laws of his people and the Bael. The Old Bael had disallowed the use of forest medicine in his village, and had appointed his own Healer, who kept the great leader and his red-sashed men healthy. But healing was reserved for the most worthy, and only the Bael and his men were so worthy.

Pyrq now felt smothered in this little house and its cloying air. He thanked the women and left abruptly. When he was some distance away from the hut he looked back to see that Hina had not followed him.

He glanced in the direction of the stone circle as he passed it and saw his trader companions lounging there and talking casually with the village’s men and a few women who were not otherwise engaged in the production of art or food. Or medicine. Or worship.

Zakar was nowhere to be seen. Pyrq walked in the direction of the traders’ camp but when he found it unpeopled he kept walking. He worried about becoming lost, for the sun was hard to consult here under the thick canopy, but he found a spot where the trees were not so thick and menacing. He stopped and sat on a large stone, breathing deeply. He realized that he was still holding the medicine packet in his hand, its scent plaguing him. He threw it far away from him and breathed the fresh air again.

The traders had now stopped in Mann for two days, and he shuddered to think what this night’s alluring moon would hold for them. None of his companions seemed in a hurry to move on; none had asked when they would return to the East even though there was little trading to be done in Mann, and they had certainly seen no sign of the dyed cloth they had come here for in the first place. Still, the precious vessels they had been gifted by the women of Mann would give the traders an advantage at eastern markets, yet no one in Pyrq’s band seemed to be in a hurry to make those lucrative deals.

Pyrq learned that his apprehension about this night was well-founded, for when he returned to the village, a spirit of revelry caused every other person’s step to bounce along even as they were engaged in some kind of work or planning. Something was going to happen, and Pyrq was both worried and curious. The constant emotional conflict within exhausted him, and he lowered himself down on a nearby bench with a long exhalation.

Two young girls stood in the trees beyond the stone circle, barely visible and moving in and out of view. One of them was Tait. What were they doing? They moved slowly, scooping, then reaching, then squatting, then jumping.

Though the girls held Pyrq’s curiosity for a while, it was easy to finally forget about them, for there was activity all around that offered to distract him. One woman – the beautiful tall one who wore a plain, undyed and shapeless tunic with no belt – carried several vessels from Tait’s workshop. Pyrq watched her make a number of trips from the workshop to the stone circle, and he admired her gracefulness. She arranged all her vessels in a way that suited her purpose, whatever that may be. It seemed to Pyrq that she was preparing for a meal, for most of the vessels were bowls for nut paste, berries, and whatever else the people of Mann would prepare for this occasion.

Soon, Pana appeared at the tall woman’s side, and began to help her. Pyrq did not like the sight of Pana; her presence felt to him like a threat, or a ghost, and he decided he would try to avoid her for the duration of his stay in Mann. But he observed her with interest as she went about her work with confidence and ease. A contrasting memory of his mother and Almah cowering and afraid flashed across Pyrq’s mind, but, as usual, he was able to banish the uncomfortable thought almost as quickly as it came.

He spied Azul, the handsome young man who had originally greeted Pyrq and Zakar to the village, and Hina coming out of the temple, and Pyrq felt deep regret and jealousy. Soon, all the men of the village were around Hina, and she appeared to give them directions and advice. They scattered this way and that, and Azul went to work building a fire. Hina disappeared back into the temple without ever looking Pyrq’s way. He wanted to go to her but something like pride kept him planted on the bench.

Pyrq sat idly looking on for quite some time. The sun was making its descent and Azul’s fire was becoming brighter as the forest grew darker. A shiver across his body made Pyrq finally move himself closer to the fire, joining the others who had gathered there. Zakar appeared with Ixi and a boy they called Ista. Soon, the whole village was in attendance, and their voices and laughter were raised in a jubilant clamor.

As the night grew darker Azul’s fire grew bigger. The people were happy and free, and they passed bowls of food and water back and forth amongst themselves and their guests. When all the food had been eaten the tall wermad, Erua, and Hina brought forth two little pitchers. They boiled water over the flames of Azul’s fire and made a fragrant brew. When they had added water to it to cool it for immediate imbibing, they prayed. As they prayed, “Ma, show us your heart”, they touched their little pitchers to the earth at their feet. Then, they rose and served their people one-by-one.

Pyrq decided he would refuse the brew when Hina and Erua came to him. He watched the grateful Mannians receive their blessed brew from their divine leader, Hina, and he heard their prayers; but he thought the participants foolish and weak. Hina was not a protective and parental leader, and Pyrq knew soon this community would soon fail and be wiped away. An icy pain went through his heart to think of his Hina endangered, but he pushed it away and stared into the fire.

In a moment, Hina was before him. Her earthy fragrance entered his nostrils and, looking into the face he had so desperately tried to memorize earlier that very day, he felt himself giving in. She pushed the vessel toward him insistently, and it was at his lips before he could make himself refuse it. This brew’s was an unfamiliar essence, bitter on the tongue and in the nose. He screwed up his face after he had swallowed the acrid liquid.

Hina moved on now, and Pyrq had to reign in the almost irresistible urge to hold onto her, for now that she was near him again he wanted her. But now tall Erua was before him, looking slightly down at him and offering him the contents of another, larger pitcher than the one he had just drunk from. This he knew to be a water vessel, for it was large and decorated with dancing figures all around it. Pyrq took a long draught from it and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Erua placed a maternal hand on his cheek and smiled at him before she moved away. By now Pyrq recognized Erua as a warm presence whose fire-like hair always struck him, for he had never seen anyone with this color hair before. It suited her perfectly, for she was comforting like a hot, well-tended hearth on a bitter cold day. Her hand was hot upon his cheek, and he was grateful for her maternal attention.

When everyone had been served, Hina and Erua drank from the pitchers. Tait and another girl removed Hina’s tunic and belt and brought forward two masks, one of which Hina put on; the other, she placed carefully at her feet. Her face was now not the face Pyrq admired. No, now it was not discernible, and again Pyrq felt helpless and desperate to find Hina’s features.

But her body was as beautiful to Pyrq as ever, though he did not like others having the privilege of seeing the curves and crannies he had enjoyed exploring in privacy. He looked toward the other men, who looked on without reaction. Suspecting Hina’s nakedness was not an infrequent occurrence, Pyrq soured and pouted.

Another woman came forward now and spoke in a booming voice, “In our beginning Ma reached into her Source, where it is warm and wet,” she said. “There, she had created the wermadn.”

As the woman spoke the words Hina reached between her thighs; then, she held up two glistening fingers. Another woman brought something to Hina, and Hina put this thing between her hips only to bring it forth again and hold it up, mimicking having given birth to it. It was a small clay figurine with wide hips and small, protruding breasts. She handed the figurine to the nearest woman, Cadda, who Pyrq recognized from his first morning in Mann. She had perhaps been the other woman in the mask in the temple that first night.

Now the woman said, “Ma made the wermadn like her as she exists around us and beneath us. Ma’s breasts burst up from the earth and every grotto, spring, and rivulet that sustain us are reminders of her divine Source.” Hina cupped her breasts and, again, at the mention of Ma’s Source, held up her wet fingers, showing her people the moisture between her thighs.

“Ma created the Bahartr, a being who would find the greatest pleasure in the mountains and the water of the wermadn,” the woman continued.

Hina now retrieved the second mask and came close to Pyrq until she was standing with her navel at his eyes. He put his hands on her hips without inhibition – but then he remembered himself and jerked his hands away. But Hina caught his hands with her own and replaced them to her hips. With his hands now occupied she tied the mask around his head.

Now inside the mask, Pyrq became forgetful of the people around him – except for Hina. It was hard to see Hina’s body fully, for the mask’s eye holes allowed for only awkward and incomplete visibility, but he saw her and felt her with his other senses, which seemed dominant now. His mind was now swimming, and it seemed that the sun had come out again beyond the mask; for now, things were brighter and more colorful. Her body glowed with the color of the fire, which was a brilliant hue he had never seen before.

“Wermadn and Bahartr lived peacefully and with great love,” said a female voice. “The Bahartr honored the wermadn and Ma by devoting themselves to learning and preserving the female mysteries of the wermadn’s body and Ma’s body upon which we walk.”

Hearing this, Pyrq was suddenly aware of the earth beneath him, and a reverberation that emanated from it. He looked down and saw that the ground undulated under his feet. He worked to keep balanced and upright, and Hina put her hands on his body to steady him. He was afraid, but then he saw that she was smiling with remarkable bliss, and he smiled, too.

“…And Ma blessed her people with children…” the voice continued.

Now, the voice was no more, but was replaced by other sounds. There were shuffling and brushing motions going on around Pyrq, so he removed his mask. Near him Tait and the other girl were engaged in a dance, and most eyes were watching this beauty of motion. The young woman with the village’s only small child capered and laughed with the boy in her arms. Pyrq felt that Zakar and Ixi were somewhere near; then they weren’t. They disappeared into the tree line hand-in-hand.

Hina’s hands were on Pyrq’s face now, and he looked down at her radiant face. He now felt a freedom, a completely foreign openness that scared him. He grabbed Hina’s hand and held onto it for stability. When her echoing laugh reached his ears he felt consoled and grounded. In his mind he reached out for his own hand again to make sure he could feel hers in it. Her hand was there, and he relaxed.

She was leading him away from the others, who had now joined Tait and the other dancing girls. Some of them had begun to sing as they danced, and their voices sounded fascinating to Pyrq. Nevertheless, they were growing more and more distant until he could hardly see them at all through the darkness. He noticed a few couples intertwined in sexual embraces as they became further and further away.

Now, he found himself alone with Hina. The fire was still visible, but they were standing in the long, long shadows that formed outside of the fire’s light.

Pyrq felt light and happy. He looked at Hina now, whose face was bright looking up into his own. He found now that, even here in the darkness, he did not seek more light. He did not mind that the fire burned at a distance that did not afford them illumination. He could see her. He knew her face. He knew her.

He hugged her closely to him. Her naked body was warm in his arms. She nuzzled up to him getting as close as she could. He felt strong and happy, carefree and euphoric. He forgot to feel anxious and worried, and remembered only pleasure and joy. He undressed himself and lay with her on the forest floor. Time stopped for them, and there was only this moment, then this moment, then this moment…

He woke in the dusky morning to find her creeping toward him from the direction of the village with a water vessel in her arms. They looked at each other with understanding, and he felt grateful to her, though now in the light of the morning, he could hardly discern why. He reached back in his mind to find himself again, for he felt lost now. He had only cloudy visions of what happened under the moon, and the harder it was to remember the more suspicious he became.

She put the water vessel in his hands and he drank thirstily. Looking into her face when he had put the vessel to the side softened him a little; he could not help but love her.

She tried to come close to him but he stiffened. She picked up the water vessel and carried it away. He watched her blue tunic disappear into the trees, and could not decide whether to admonish or congratulate himself.

He would not see her again before the trading band silently left Mann. All four traders were quiet as they packed up their camp and their cart. They were all very busy working and avoiding talking when Pana appeared. She approached Pyrq with a hesitancy that Pyrq thought was unlike her, but he took it to mean that he had the upper hand. She wished to ask something of him, and now he was the decider. He took pleasure in looking down on her as she stood close to him.

But Pana looked upon him with an intelligent face that felt knowing and intuitive. It made Pyrq want to look away, just as he had the day she visited him at his campfire.

“You are leaving with many gifts from our people, trader. We have asked for nothing in return – other than your friendship.” She paused here with a curious expression upon her face; but then, she was a very curious person, and Pyrq had lost his patience with trying to figure her out. “We believe the wermadn of the East will be greatly interested in this special brew,” and she nodded toward the vessel she held in her arms. “Would you give it to them?”

Pana seemed to always catch Pyrq off his guard. In this moment, he hardly knew what to utter in response. What had she said? Something about women in the East? What was in that vessel?

He had been staring into her eyes, which were blue-green hypnotic things, and getting lost. He must have looked quite confused, but she stared back at him unblinking.

“Trader,” she cooed.

“What is in it?” He had finally stumbled into a response.

“This is a healing brew for wermadn giving birth. It eases the pain of bringing a child into the world, and helps stop bleeding,” she answered.

“I see no children in Mann, except the one boy.”

“Yet there are many Mattas.”

He reached out for the vessel enveloped in her arms but she did not give it to him. “Will you give it to them?”

“Is it valuable?”

She frowned. “Give it to them freely, trader.” Again, her expression was meaningful, and Pyrq could not help but look away.

She, though, took his hands and pressed the squat lidded vessel into his hands. He gasped a little to see that the vessel was decorated with much red pigment, but, seeing his reaction, Pana tightened her hands around his. Despite his discomfort, he took the vessel and secured it in the cart.

“Your foot has completely healed, and gives you no suffering?” she asked.

He kept looking away and muttered, “Yes.” He suddenly became preoccupied with tightening the straps that crisscrossed the cart. After a moment he saw her disappear from his peripheral vision, and he was instantly relieved to finally feel unwatched and unscrutinized.

Pyrq joined Zakar at the front of the traders’ procession while the other men took their places pulling the cart. They were all very quiet as they put distance between themselves and Mann, and they all seemed to be dragging their feet.

To Pyrq, it now seemed a heavy burden to be leaving the West. Behind him was light and learning, ahead of him was a world in which he would touch no red.

 

Chapter Twenty: Pyrq

Zakar offered Pyrq water, stretching his long arm outward toward his nephew. It was the first time they had looked into one another’s eyes since leaving Mann.

Pyrq stopped short of accepting the vessel Zakar offered him. It was a traveling vessel like Pana’s, a cloth tied at the top with a leather thong. The vessel was decorated beautifully with triangles, snaking lines, and birds.

“Get rid of that, Uncle. The Bael will not like it,” Pyrq said.

Zakar smiled an acrid, resentful smile. “Bah! Do you really believe the Bael understands?”

They didn’t say anything else to each other for a long time, Zakar happy to let his accusation hang in the air around his nephew, and Pyrq happy to avoid any talk about Mann and its people, and their ridiculous beliefs and customs.

Around the fire that night Zakar was very satisfied drinking from his Mannian vessel. He pointed to the triangles and repeated what Erua had told him: “These represent the gateway to Her Source, Ma’s grotto. These waves are her eternal flow, which sustains us.” He had reverted back to the dialect of his home village, and it was strange and distasteful to Pyrq to hear Mannian ideas expressed in Baelean words.

The trading company had been mostly silent until this moment. Everyone but Pyrq had supped on nut paste Erua had given them. Pyrq ate dried meat they had purchased in Mens.

But he found that his dinner gave him no pleasure; indeed, he was quite dissatisfied with it and with himself. And he was especially displeased with his uncle. Instead of listening to Zakar drone on and on about the people and art of Mann, Pyrq crawled into his tent to try to find sleep.

Sleep was not hard to find, for they had traveled a very long way in one sun. They were now on the eastern side of Mens again, and their thoughts could safely turn to their own home and families. When Pyrq closed his eyes he allowed his mother’s face to float forward to address him. He pictured her most familiarly at her pottery table, for that is where she had spent her life. She sat there now, in his mind, expressionless, with her hair tied at the nape of her neck. She paused now and again to rub her elbows; she winced a little before returning to her work.

Now, the pottery itself floated forward, and Pyrq woke to the feeling of trying to repress something. He fell back asleep immediately, though, for the world was silent and dark, and there was nothing to hear nor to see.

Though a cloud hung over uncle and nephew, the other traders reveled in their newfound popularity at the eastern markets. In the east, decorated pottery had become a hard commodity to find, so Pyrq and Zakar’s Mannian treasures brought great attention and profit.

Pyrq had been watching the stores of pottery get low, for they needed to unload the Mannian vessels before they returned to the Village of the Bael. But finally, the only vessels left were Zakar’s water vessel, which Zakar refused to sell, and Pana’s short one that held what she had claimed was important medicine. Pyrq wrapped this one carefully, and stored it among his own personal things, and it was thusly forgotten about by everyone else.

They would find themselves stepping into the Village of the Bael soon, and they wondered if they had been gone long enough for Ahur to go east and return with the Bael’s bride – and Pyrq’s. Pyrq was beginning to realize he did not like thinking about the woman whom he had begged his father to bring to him. He pushed thoughts of her far away, and when he changed the subject as the traders’ conversation turned to brides Zakar grinned menacingly at him.

But they arrived home to exactly the village they had left. The Bael’s red-sashed men still patrolled the village while its other citizens quivered inside their homes. Zakar and Pyrq found Febeq and Almah washing their clay-caked hands at the back of the house. They were all smiles when Pyrq and Zakar came into view, and Febeq immediately vocalized her plans for a celebratory meal.

Pyrq avoided his mother and Zakar that evening. The meal Febeq had prepared was pleasant enough, for there was little conversation; but, when Febeq and Zakar took their places at the back of the house to carry on their nightly conference, Pyrq wanted no part of it. He did not want to hear what his mother thought about his bride, who would probably be here soon, and he certainly did not want to be subjected to his uncle’s discerning grins. He was tired of Zakar’s cognizance dogging him at every step, so he avoided the man altogether and had no choice but to await his fate, which his father would bring to his doorstep shortly.

Pyrq wasted no time the next morning. He rose, performed his ablutions at the river bank, and made his way to the Bael’s home, which was the largest and most conspicuous in the village. A servant received him, disappeared, then returned to say that the Bael had agreed to see Pyrq. The servant, a tall wiry man who wore undyed cloth and animal hide boots, led Pyrq through a short corridor and into a large room where the Bael was seated at a long table. One solitary seat had been placed at the long table, and it was presently occupied by the Bael himself.

The Bael was, as expected, dressed in a red tunic, which stood out particularly starkly against the putty colored plaster walls of his house. He wore several strands of beads around his neck just as he had the day he had visited Pyrq’s family at home. Now, Pyrq saw that the beads were made from shells Pyrq knew to be from the southern sea routes. He had seen many of these beads on his trade route, but they were rarer the farther one traveled into the East.

The room was furnished with many novelties, including some the Bael’s red-sashed men had taken from Ahur’s market booth. Most of them were red things, like the tapestry that hung on the wall behind the Bael. It looked very much like cloth one would find in Mann, and for the Bael to have it hung on a wall instead of put to pragmatic use proved his status and his wealth. Pyrq imagined the walls of his own home, and how interesting it would be to hang cloth on them.

“Pyrq,” the Bael boomed, “Come! What have you brought for me?”

Pyrq glanced down at the bundle in his arm and placed it on the Bael’s table. “My father is bringing your bride from the East, from your homeland. I present you with this vessel to celebrate your color and your marriage. It will be a nice trinket for your woman.”

With his bare hands, the Bael took the vessel from its wrappings. He held it up and looked at it. His face looked pleased, and when he finally spoke his amicable tone confirmed his approval. “I thank you for this gift, Pyrq. I believe my bride will like it very much.” He handed the vessel off to a servant who intuitively appeared at the Bael’s side.

“And, for you Bael, I bring you this cloth from the West,” Pyrq said. “It is very difficult to find, very rare…especially now.”

The servant accepted the cloth, which had been wrapped with a piece of plain flax cloth, and presented it to the Bael. Pyrq felt a pang of remorse to relinquish the Mensian cloth.

“Ah, yes,” said the Bael, fingering the cloth and finding it acceptable. “I thank you.”

Pyrq sensed that he was about to be dismissed, but just as the Bael’s hand raised to wave him away, Pyrq blurted out, “I will also take a bride from the East. Like you, Bael.”

“Oh?” the Bael asked.

“My father will bring a woman for me. From the East.”

“Well!” the Bael said. “That is a wise choice. Eastern women are obedient.”

Pyrq stood awkwardly before the Bael with nothing left to say. “Goodbye,” he finally produced.

The Bael said nothing more. The servant at his side ushered Pyrq away.

Pyrq and the servant now stood in an anteroom to the Bael’s chamber where Pyrq paused to observe a mural painted on a wall. The figure of a man with an exaggerated penis balanced on top of a mountain. Bright red blood flowed from him, though its exact source was unclear. Below him, men formed from the blood that flowed.

“This is the God of the Mountain,” the servant said. “He created the Baels. Then, He created us.”

Some of the figures forming from the blood of the god wore beads around their necks like the Bael wore, distinguishing them from the other men.

“You have come from the West, yes? The Bael has been there, and he says it is a wasteland. The people in the West eat dung and copulate with animals. That is why their numbers are low; they do not have children.”

Pyrq could only look at this man, this servant, and remain silent. To correct this man would be to correct the Bael, which did not seem advisable. So, Pyrq kept quiet except to thank the servant for escorting him out-of-doors. Once there, Pyrq walked on toward his parents’ house, trying to shake his disbelief as he went. Before he reached the door of his house, he had convinced himself that the servant had lied.

Still, Pyrq felt unsettled, and a little angry at himself. He turned toward the river now, and, once there, found a secluded spot. He took out a packet he had tucked inside his belt and opened it. He forced his hand to unwind the twisted cloth to reveal a mound of dried leaves. Again, he forced himself, dumping the cloth’s contents into the river.

He grimaced and cursed. He should have dumped Pana’s herbs by the roadside unceremoniously; then, perhaps he would have felt better about gifting her vessel to the Bael. But now, watching the little dried things float on the water away from him, somehow he felt he had betrayed her. But, no; he had invested in the Bael’s power and approval, and doing so would certainly pay off. He straightened his legs and walked himself home where his family was seated around the table eating their morning meal. He joined them.

Zakar looked down at his nephew, still with that smiley scowl. Pyrq tried to avoid Zakar’s eyes.

“Will we go to the market today?” Pyrq asked.

“Is that what you would like to do?” Zakar asked.

Pyrq merely replied, “Yes,” without looking at his uncle.

They took their selected inventory to the market, and found themselves very welcomed there. Their wares were viewed and handled with much interest, and they received several requests for news from the West. But Pyrq rebuffed those requests, afraid to refute what he had heard at the Bael’s home that morning. And, once again, Zakar looked at his nephew with a mix of disdain and confusion.

Though their wares generated much interest, the people of the Village of the Bael had little to trade themselves, so the trade deals Pyrq made were lopsided, with the recipient of western products benefiting more than Pyrq. But he did acquire some milk and some nuts that had been collected in the forest under the watchful escort of the Bael’s men, for no one was allowed outside the village without the Bael’s permission.

Once home, Zakar and Pyrq assessed their inventory, as they did daily. Febeq and Almah carried their contributions outside to be included in the men’s inventorying. As the family worked, a neighbor approached.

He addressed Pyrq. “Pyrq, your father is arriving. His band has been spotted in the eastern tree line.”

Pyrq and his mother emptied their hands and stood in front of the house looking eastwardly. For some moments Zakar and Almah did not move, but out of curiosity, they came forward to look in an eastward direction.

Pyrq and his mother stood together, their bodies and eyes pointed toward the eastern edge of the village, while Zakar and Almah stayed closer to the house with their eyes on Febeq and Pyrq instead of the procession that was emerging. In a wide space between houses that looked out on the eastern woods, Pyrq saw his father, the proud leader, though a little bent with what was probably fatigue, and his companions, Molkar’s old band, pulling the cart.

Seeing no sign of the brides, Pyrq felt his heart rise and fall almost simultaneously. It was a jarring feeling that made him woozy, though he steadied himself as his eyes darted to his uncle, who now leaned against the house casually and, Pyrq thought, smugly.

But in that moment Zakar stood at attention as he looked past Pyrq, the procession coming better into view. Pyrq looked, too, and now distinguished two additional figures following the traders’ cart. His mother looked back and forth between Pyrq and the East excitedly, and Pyrq’s knees buckled.

In another instant Zakar was at his side grasping his elbow and whispering very placidly, “Stand tall, Pyrq. Your father approaches. He brings you a bride.”

###

 

 

 

 

 

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-Shana Marie

 

 

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Acknowledgments

 

Thanks to Weslea Hottman (who was with me from page one) for giving this work a thorough reading and giving me your opinions and suggestions. Thanks also to Zack Greenfield, who read a sampling and cheered me on to write more. I am eternally grateful to the indefatigable Steven Simes, who helped with the artwork. Finally, thanks to the talented Aimee Simes and Nieves Uhl, who knew exactly what this book needed.

About the Author

Shana Marie was born in Kentucky, and graduated from Western Kentucky University. “Her Disturbing Presence” is this author’s first published work. Marie presently lives in Tennessee, where she works in the education field.


Her Disturbing Presence, Part One

Thrust into his father's profession long before he is ready, Pyrq must navigate the trade routes in the West. What he finds there challenges the beliefs he clings to: that women are a weak liability and that men must be dominating like the formidable patriarch of his home village, the Bael. But the West is restive, and Pyrq himself unwittingly becomes a key figure in a major shift in leadership among two communities. While one community succumbs to the changes brought about by the Neolithic Revolution, another desperately cleaves to the ways of its mothers. Pyrq surprisingly finds himself seduced by the customs of the latter, and he struggles between the allure of its sensual priestess and the forceful, masculine domination he has come to accept as normal and rightful.

  • ISBN: 9781370443192
  • Author: Shana Marie
  • Published: 2017-06-22 14:05:14
  • Words: 61450
Her Disturbing Presence, Part One Her Disturbing Presence, Part One