by Colin Meldrum
“Am I the first to do it? Could I be the first woman to bare a son without first lying with a man? This is a new miracle to our tribes, but surely I won’t be the last to accomplish it.” The matriarch speaks to me with a quavering, staccato voice, as if her passion is riddled with dangerous holes. She wears too many wools and skins for the climate. She had me adorned in the same, packaged in guest robes—though as a teacher I seem to have overstayed my welcome by even requesting entry into the tribe’s lands.
“I was betrothed to a king,” she continues, her dark eyes cutting a sneer from obsidian. “They tossed him out. They set me up on a pedestal above man; they sat my son upon a throne and bathed his feet. By the time he was old enough to know right from wrong I had done it again: a daughter this time. A new virgin. They tossed my son out then. Left him in the wilderness. Can you imagine—” (a chuckle). “How restlessly the seasons change. When he returned, we killed him. Now I keep this seat warm myself, until my daughter’s hips grow to fill it.”
A heat extends into my tendons, but I swallow, blink slowly, cool the fire. I’ve promised my companion, who stands beyond the gate, to keep the first visitation simple and gentle. Still, I keep my tongue hot.
“And we are chaste. We’ve chased our old men off; leaving them vagabonds, going about naked, hunting their new women in the savanna where the tribes still grovel at the feet of shepherds—” she cackles, throws a glance that seems to invite my own laughter, which is not received. “While here, we cover our sacred parts. Our motherland reaches up into our bellies with the loving fingertips of sorghum and millet and a handful of other grains and we grow fat with child from the sweat of our faces, not the domestication of men. So, go on. I’ll listen to your tired, primitive arguments, and then you are welcome to either stay, Woman, and till your mother soil with me, or shiver home to your serpent.”
This is a dismissal—and a jab at my companion and his anatomy, though the metaphor is more accurate than she realizes. I’m leaving now, and don’t remember my reply. Perhaps I was stumped. I am escorted to the foot of the mountain where my companion has been patiently awaiting my return since men are no longer permitted to walk these fertile grounds.
We leave immediately, traveling in silence. We are accustomed to days of meditative company, he and I, not reaching into one another for the answers to life’s puzzles, but waiting side by side for a middle way to come along between us.
The smell of the village welcomes us at nightfall. My companion sighs audibly. He has grown to take comfort in the company of goat scent.
This, the last community of herders in the land, an island amid a spreading revolution of suffocating agriculture, has become our home and our hope.
What we hope is to teach a harmony that we ourselves can only begin to understand—a harmony across the divisions of tribes, perspectives, sexes, and species—and a harmony with everything in between—and a harmony of tradition and understanding. The tribe has been teachable, but students dedicated to awakening their minds are few, and the community shaman has yet to decide what we may be.
The village is in a stir. No one greets us as we appear, neither as gods nor as misfits this time. They surround a marriage hut; laughter bounces in the crowd, innocent taunting, but I detect something threatening in the air. The front line of the crowd is full of adolescents, but now several adults and elders have dropped their burdens and chores to approach with confused scowls. We push into the coagulating crowd gently, trying not to draw attention to ourselves—with my bleached-ivory complexion, I stick out among these villagers like the last dish of snow on a mountainside.
I hear the word “stink” before I smell it myself. It feels as though the air is ready to boil, but the sky is clear. This forecast emanates from the hut somehow: a moist odor, halfway between the first downpour of wet season and the rot of a stagnant water hole.
The heavy ceremonial curtains of the front door part with the brisk thrust of a hand. A head reveals itself more hesitantly: the dark brown scalp of a new man, freshly shorn of its childhood coils. He looks up, scans the crowd with an excessively contorted, nervous expression, and climbs out into the open. They erupt with laughter. The youngsters point and gesture obscenely. The elders fold their mouths up into smirks and grins and shake their heads. The shaman trudges forward, his legs bowed by age. He tsks and waves his hands at the poor groom. When the boy only shakes his head, the shaman snatches him at the shoulders and turns him around. The front line of the crowd is upon him in an instant, playfully shoving and kicking until the groom—now pleading, yelling—disappears again into the hut. Apparently, he’d come out too soon. The flap of the curtains sends an unpleasant waft of air over the crowd, and half of the white grins curl back into offended bewilderment.
Then the curtains burst open again. This time, it is the bride, flailing. The groom is behind her, pushing her out of the hut by the arm and tossing her into the dust before them. She is silent. Her naked body is painted with the traditional white stripes and dots of womanhood. Beneath the paint, I recognize her face.
Her name is Sao; she became a new student of mine just before I left to speak before the matriarch of the tiller tribes. She is young, but I caught a glimpse of a promising spark in her keen stare, drifting unguided within the eye of an opaque twister of superstition. I hoped to ignite her before a man would have the opportunity to marry her.
The stink engulfs us afresh in a sudden wave, worse than a herd of livestock. The crowd immediately gives way in a collective groan. The children run off pinching their noses and giggling. More pointing.
I hold my position in the crowd, close my eyes and attempt to place the scent.
The shaman shuffles forward and leers over her, prodding and investigating. A moment passes, and then he sentences the girl to exile, bellowing it aloud for all to hear. The wives exchange glances.
I’ve seen it before in other tribes. I’ve helped women give birth amid complications, only to find later that something had gone terribly wrong internally: severe tearing between the body’s delicate tubing, followed by a growing stench of fecal decay, a curse that would doom the woman to banishment for the remainder of her survival.
But there is nowhere left for exile. What had been a surrounding wilderness is already taken; the tillers occupy every bit of land on every side. Even banished to the farthest corner of the valley, she would surely be encountered again by the herdsmen of this very village, who would only toss her out yet farther.
Aside from this, Sao has never given birth.
I weave through the dissipating crowd. The anger is rank in the air now. The groom looks shaken and has his eyes on the villagers, now gathering in again around the shaman and fermenting the air of a mob.
I grab the groom by the wrist. “What did you do to her?” I demand.
He recoils from my pale alien skin, but I sink my fingertips into his arm like talons and hold fast, allow my irises to ignite, and repeat the question. He shakes his head and curses me. He is stronger than I am at this moment and tears himself free, stumbling out of grasp.
The shaman looks from me to the groom, frowning. The wiseman is still under the convenient suspicion that my companion and I are gods. I can count on my fingertips the few lies I’ve ever told, but I find myself silently pleading for this misconception of our divinity to overwhelm the other misconception he has of us: that we are not individuals, but married gods, suggesting that my seniority and forwardness are the ways of an errant wife, empowered by demons.
And now the other “god” steps forward. The mob mustered up the courage to pounce upon Sao, pulling her this way and that as if tearing her in two would get her more quickly out of the way, and—this is the moment—they jabbed with sticks, aiming between her legs, some laughing, some hissing—but now a loud crack throws the mob apart, their wooden prods exploding like cakes beneath a tsunami. A rumble of liquid voice keeps them at bay as they tremble—the roar of my companion. In a moment of lightning reaction he had summoned the moisture from the very air as his shell, and now in a menacing roll of thunder he encircles the bride, his body elongated and fluid, eyes paper-flat and awake, jaw unhinged. He gapes at one assailant, and then the next. The mob is paralyzed with fear.
Our work is ruined.
The shaman is the first to react, cursing us head to toe and then suddenly facing me in the bold precursor to a blow of his staff. I step back and stop him with my hand, resisting the overwhelming urge to end this quickly.
“We’re getting her out of here,” my companion hisses behind my ear. “Now.”
“No,” I say, making sure the villagers can hear.
“If we escort her, we can keep her from harm.”
“They’re sending her to their enemies over the border. It will only reinforce the division between tribes.” Perhaps I am stubborn and predictable, but I have earned it.
“She can’t stay.”
“They’ll kill her.”
“I can fix her.”
His eyes meet mine. His spine relaxes. He wraps around Sao, gathers her up, and deposits her in the doorway of the marriage hut.
“They won’t kill her if they understand her,” I say.
“Go to her,” he whispers. “I’ll hold them off for now.”
Within the hut, I emit enough of a glow to light up the room and follow Sao with my eyes to the middle of the wool-covered floor. She wads up a blanket. She kneels awkwardly, all of her joints stiff with adrenaline. She sits on the blanket; she seems to be trying to stuff herself with it, to plug herself up. It is clear, now, that even she senses that the root of the odor is within her child-bearing depths. She looks at me and shakes her head, her face gathering up in a thick sob.
“When was the last time you bled?” I ask, still standing.
Sao shakes her head and moves a knee aside, spreading her legs to reveal an answer. The room is too dark. I let out an extra peal of light, sending shadows across the poles of the hut walls, and barely visible in the flesh of her inner thigh are long, thin, knife scars. She feigned menstruation, as I’ve known the two-spirited male-bodied wives of other cultures to do to earn their element of womanhood. But Sao is woman-bodied. Yet she does not bleed and is cursed by her own womb.
“Have you cut anywhere else?” I ask.
She stares up, the white of her eyes glowing moist and ghostly. Does she see me as a fellow misfit? Does she feel the disconcerting comfort of knowing that there is at least someone who will not cut her off. That we will likely be cut off together from the rest of her people?
“Has your husband done something to you that might hurt you inside?”
At this, she breaks the stare and her eyes go invisible under their dark lids. “He wouldn’t touch me,” she whispers.
Someone enters. My companion. He has taken his more conservative form, but is clearly exhausted and overwhelmed, his black hair dripping into his eyes. “Her father is here,” he whispers. “They’ve calmed down enough to let him enter safely to speak with her.
“The mother?” I ask.
“Her mother didn’t survive giving birth to her.”
Sao’s father enters, a small but strong, well-respected herdsman among the villagers. He seems to notice that the light of the room is produced from my white skin and he staggers for a moment, then spies his daughter and dives upon her, tucking her head under his chin and weeping shamelessly. Amid sobs, he asks who has done this to her, who has plagued her or raped her in the fields.
But there was no one. She’s crossed no sorcerer, upset no gods, crossed no borders into wicked other-lands. She’s lain with no man.
Her father is trembling, his lips curled and silent and eyes squeezed shut. “Then it is worst of all,” he moans. “You make a demon in your virgin belly.” A hand rises out of the tangle of their embrace, the glint of a small blade sparkling in my firelight.
In a spray of jagged rain, my companion reacts again like lightning, gushing into the recesses between father and victim. Then he has swept the man out through the curtains before I know whether or not the girl is still alive. Alone suddenly, I bend over her collapsed form and call her name. She is breathing, passed out.
Screams cycle beyond the hut walls. A thud breaks against the back side of the hut. My companion’s voice—a heart-rumbling hiss now—penetrates the walls on one side and then the other, flooding my ears, and then is drowned out in the roar of sea breaking stone. The earth shivers under the soles of my feet as he summons water from deep rivers. The ground quakes and throws me to my knees. Noise suffocates from all sides as if the hut is being pummeled beneath a mammoth waterfall. The ground seems to rise and rotate.
More screams. Fainter. The only voices are distant. The roof begins to leak. The drops hit my hair and shoulders and sizzle away.
I notice that Sao is conscious now, swaying on hands and knees over the uneasy ground, which still bobs and sways like a raft. She reaches out to me, singes her fingertips against my arm. She recoils—an instinct—before reaching out again and capturing me with her wide, round eyes.
I extinguish my flame and give her my hand. The room goes immediately black. Her fingers intertwine with mine and the weight of her body presses desperately against me, curling into my lap. Her tears wet my shoulder, but do not sizzle. She alternates her fingertips against mine. It is several minutes before I realize that she is playing a game with me. Mismatching fingertips against one another. An element of randomness, of patterns, of chance. A childish pastime. I fail to catch the point and squeeze her hand closed.
Time passes. Perhaps hours. Sao’s abdomen swells against my stomach in the rhythm of agitated sleep. I relax my embrace. I allow her face to slide slowly from the crook of my neck and hear her mouth unstick and inhale heavily. The exhale that follows carries the stench.
My eyes spark to life, filled with devastated wonder. The stench from her mouth, too? It seems to fill her entire body.
She exhales again. This time I place the scent. Wet grain. Mildew. The rot of crops. A pile of old fodder left weeks to sit in the aftermath of mucky weather.
In the dim light, her hair seems to have grown a new texture out from its short, tight curls. I reach up to investigate carefully what looks like debris caught on her head. My hand comes away with a shaft of wheat or millet. Blown in from the tillers’ fields? I massage the grain in my hand and the dry seeds tumble over my palm. I reach for another head of grain stuck in the nap of her hair and attempt to pluck it away. It doesn’t come free. Instead, her scalp jerks and she stirs, almost awakens.
I raise the light of my eyes. This shaft is definitely millet, still green. And rooted to her scalp.
Investigating deeper within the source of the stench, I swipe the inside of her mouth with my finger. I roll the residue between my fingertip and thumb. Wheatpaste. Mold.
I lay her down, running my fingers through her hair as I do, and step shakily to the curtain with a handful of dry seed. Outside the entrance, my companion squats, long and menacing, his feet hidden, or melted into the wide moat that surrounds the marriage hut, which seems to be floating atop it. It is nearly morning. The huts of the village are dark and quiet.
I am surprised to see the village. “I thought you had taken us cross-continent to sea,” I admit to him. “Or that we sailed a river, at least.”
“No,” he replied. “I thought you wanted her here, among her people. No divisions.”
A sigh ebbs over my tongue, releasing a tension I didn’t know was there. “I don’t know if that will be possible anymore.”
He nods patiently. “They’ve left, most of them. There are a few watchmen who stayed behind. They’re afraid to let us wander. But I thought, as long as it was the tribe that chose to leave, not us . . .”
I hold out my hand, but it is too dark for him to see its contents properly. He touches it, asks me what it is.
“This is Sao,” I whisper.
He stirs his fingertips deep into the dish of my palm, listens to the rasping crunch of grain. He pulls his hand away, looks out into the night. He ponders. “You don’t think it will be possible?”
I watch his green eyes reflect the black water. He is thinking of integrating her into the tiller tribes—into the culture of her enemies. Of deifying her above them. Of resurrecting Demeter as a virgin.
Now he is remembering the ungodly stink, the rot. Now he finds no place for her in his imagination. “Then company,” he says. “Companionship . . . is the last thing we can offer.”
This hadn’t occurred to me articulated so. Banishment as loneliness. The cure: company. Not acceptance?
“Do you remember the Greek Python?” I ask.
“Who guarded the fruitful navel of Gaia,” he finishes.
I make a fist and grind the dry seeds, then let them trickle onto the ground and press them into the soil.
He understands and nods. “Then I am Python,” he whispers.
He looks out across the huts. I notice one of the watchmen he spoke of, glaring out of the shadows with a spear at the ready.
“I meant for you to go in,” I say crisply, “to comfort her. I’ve never even been a child—I wouldn’t know—”
“After this?” He looks at me, surprised. “I’m a monster here! I can’t imagine my company helping her the way your warmth will.”
I restrain a scowl. We are silent a moment. Then I begin scooping the water and the soil together. I begin painting the mud over my moon-white skin, baking it to my features with my own fire. Python looks on with curiosity, but says nothing. Then he looks away.
I enter the hut dark as a starless night. Not a glow escapes me. I am human, dark as her mother might have been. Sao, awake, watches me uneasily as I crouch beside her and attempt an embrace. I keep the mud dry but warm and supple. This is a difficult trick, but I find that gestures of comfort are more difficult to muster, regardless of the mud coating. I catch myself in my lie, the lie of this masking complexion, and wonder if I am only able to comfort another person through the medium of dishonesty.
I play my fingertips against hers and she teaches me the game. I try to become a child. Then I try to become the mother of a child. Then I try to become the mother of an adult victim, a misfit, a demon among the superstitious.
Soon, the light of a sunrise peeks in around the thick curtains and through the tiniest of breaks between wall poles. She whispers that she is hungry, that she craves sunlight and clay.
A sharp thud hits the hut wall. Then another, bouncing overhead. Then a shaft of light pierces the wall and slaps into the side of my head—a stone—shattering that side of my faux-face and releasing a spark of shock, followed by a retort of flaring ire. I am almost a volcano. They stone us? We could walk on water and snuff out the heavens and they pelt us with pebbles? Somehow, I remain calm. I sit; I sit to satisfy Sao’s hunger to be held, to belong within an embrace, somewhere. Another rock pierces the wall but I am enveloping the girl now. She gasps and twists, disturbing her compressed blanket and releasing a cascade of grain from between her legs. I hear the scratch of a mouse from the corner of the hut.
A pillar of sun breaks the ceiling and illuminates Sao’s eyes; she looks up, her mouth agape, her pupils dilating in the light like the maws of parched whales.
Another stone cracks against the back of my ribs, crumbling the mud and spilling bitter charity into my throat. Wings erupt from the boiling heat of my back and swallow the approaching mouse alive, swallow the empty dimness of the room and embubble us in fire. The air is loud with my crackle and consumption. I hug her to me, careful not to catch her drier sheddings in the flame. She presses her cheek deliberately against mine, the one still masked in mud, escaping into the lie. We huddle. Soon I feel a pricking along my skin, a tickling up and down my body. She has taken root into the mud I wear.
I want to become plant. Oh, to cease to think, to cease to need to think and heal. I want to be. To simply be. To swallow sunlight and sway in breath and drink from clay and never care, never bother, never feel.
Is the girl a miracle? Is this harmony? Or is this rape by the very land that is raped by the tillers beyond?
Rocks disintegrate against my wings like shooting stars. I count the lies of this tragedy. I estimate how long the tribe will carry on with their attempts to tear us from them, or tear us limb from limb.
We’ll starve if we continue to limit our retaliation. I’ll sit and practice this comfort until I’ll need to eat the very grain I’m protecting. Python’s water will soften up the swirls of Sao’s fingertips into the swirls of dough until she cannot be remembered as Sao any longer and I can bake her for bread and go on living as she cannot go on living.
I will beg Python to wash the lies and the truths out of my head, and I, in turn, will boil his mind, letting the memory of what we’re capable of float away as steam.
Colin Meldrum is the founding editor of A cappella Zoo, a magazine of magic realism and slipstream. He is the author of A History of Halves, which contains the story above and other stories that follow its heroes across history. More of his work is available from www.colinmeldrum.com.
‘iella’ is a ’89 kid, typically at the back of the class doodling, not paying any attention. Often seen smearing paint on walls, iella is dependent on caffeine and runs on lack of sleep.