Continuing my series of posts based on my last few years’ worth of stories and such that I have written as Christmas cards. This was a companion piece to a novel, but I hope it stands on its own.
A Tale of the Insubstantial
The girl came to find the woman where she sat, drinking her stolen water and eating her stolen fruit.
“My family needs that,” the girl said, pointing her chin at the water-skin in the woman’s hands.
“Go away,” the woman said. She didn’t meet the girl’s eyes, but instead watched her body, both of them wary and coiled despite the ravages of hunger.
“I remember you,” said the girl. The woman put the water-skin again to her lips. Behind them, the sky was dark with smoke. The city was burning. She couldn’t think of its name, but it didn’t matter. Her experiences these last few hundred years told her that in a lifetime or two no one would. The conquerors from whom these refugees were fleeing would have their own name, might flay alive or tear apart those who spoke of its old name. A generation later, they too would be conquered, the heads of their great-grandchildren yet unborn decorating the spikes of the city walls.
“Are you a god?” said the girl. “The priests say that any of us may meet a god on the road, and we must always do their bidding. But I don’t think a god would steal food and water. What’s your name?”
“That’s not what you said to old Yenua whose bread you stole,” said the girl. “You said Verun. And to my mother, you said nothing. You just stole our water and ran
behind the ash-heaps.”
“And what is your name?” said the woman.
“Peera. That’s the only water we have.”
“Peera. If I am not a god, what do you think I might be?”
“I don’t know. But my grandmother was very old when she died and she never saw a god. I could tell people about you. I’ve been watching you and nobody ever remembers you. You steal things and run away and they never remember who you are.”
The woman nodded. “And what if you told? What if I ran away then, far away, and people thought you were a bad girl for lying?”
“I would get beaten.”
The woman held a peach to her face and smelled it. It was brown and weeping juice, but it was still a peach. Those few who had escaped the city couldn’t bring much with them, and in this time of drought, there hadn’t been much to bring anyway. “I could give you this, and you could eat it,” said the woman. “And then you could keep a secret.”
The girl shook her head. “You could give me that and I could take it to my grandfather who his leg is broken and we have to drag him.”
“No.” The woman’s hand tightened around the soft peach and some of its juice bled into the dirt. “That would be a waste. I’ve seen the old man you drag. He will be dead in a week.”
“I want him to have the peach,” said the girl. “I could follow you around everywhere and warn people about you. You wouldn’t be able to surprise them.”
The woman nudged a large rock with her foot. “I could kill you,” she said, “and run down to the dry riverbed until everyone forgot about me, and when your grandfather died in a week, he would die unhappy because his little star had gone before him into the darkness.”
The girl took a half-step back. She obviously hadn’t considered this. “You’re mean,” she said, but the words came out without conviction, as though most people in her experience were mean, and the threat of murder wasn’t new. It wasn’t. The refugees represented less than a tenth of the population of their city. All of the young men were dead on the battlefield. Whole families, already weakened by the siege, had fallen just making it to the head of the valley. People picked fights with former neighbours just for the opportunity of looting their corpses.
“I’m smart,” said the woman. “It’s stupid to give food to next week’s dead. It might still be in his body when you pile some rocks on him and leave him in the dust.”
“So you’ll give me the peach if I eat it myself?” said the girl.
The woman grinned. “Now you’re lying. As soon as I give it to you, you’ll run and share it with your family.”
“You’re mean,” the girl said again.
“So what do we do, Peera?” said the woman. “I don’t want to kill you, not very much, but I’m not going to waste my peach on your dead grandfather.”
“You could steal from some other people,” said Peera. “It’s a long line of people.”
“But that wouldn’t be right, either, because maybe there’s another grandfather up there who needs the peaches or the bread or the water.”
“Does nobody remember you ever?” said the girl.
“What about anybody else? What if you want them to?”
“Nobody,” said the woman. There might have been a hint of sadness at the corners of her mouth.
“You’re not a god then,” said the girl. “Everybody remembers them. You have to or the priests get to hit you.”
“There are no gods,” said the woman.
The girl was silent for a moment. “I guess not,” she said. “But some of the stories are good.” Then she brightened. “I could remember you,” she said.
“What?” said the woman.
“In my heart,” said the girl. “I could remember you and when I have a little girl or a little boy of my own, I could tell them about you and how you gave back the water you stole and maybe a peach for my grandfather. That way, even though nobody else would remember you, I would.”
The woman looked at the rotten peach in her hand. “What’s better,” she said, “a peach now, or you remembering me giving your dead grandfather a peach in twenty years?”
“I know what I think is better,” said the girl. “For me. What do you think is better?”
The woman looked back the way they had all come. The line of refugees wasn’t long. “How far back do you think they are?” she said.
“My grandfather says they won’t catch us. He says they will stop soon. Are there other people like you?”
The woman shrugged. “How would I know?”
“Are you going to give me the peach and the water now?”
“And in exchange, you will tell your little girl one day about the magic spirit who gave it to you?”
“I don’t think you’re magic. If you were, you could make trees grow in the desert so the bad men would get lost in them and the trees would give us fruit. But I’ll tell her that if you like. I could call her your name. What is your real name anyway?”
Another shrug. “Naku. Verun. Attal-ve. I don’t have one or I have a hundred. And if you have a son instead of a daughter? Will you raise him to come back here someday with an army and do to them what they’re doing to you?”
Peera shook her head. “No, that’s stupid. That’s what grandfather says, that we will kill them or our gods will. I’ll tell my little boy to build a house and find a wife and get an ox that can pull the plow. If everybody goes in armies it doesn’t work. Armies just steal everybody’s peaches and then nobody has any.”
The woman studied her for a long time, then sighed and stood up. “Here.” She held out the rotten peach and the half-full skin of water. “Go ahead, take it. Give it to the dead man.”
Peera looked at her but didn’t yet reach for the gifts. “Why?” she said. “I thought you were going to kill me?”
“Too much trouble,” said the woman. “And your company begins to wear on me. All of you. Your bread is stale, your meat fly-blown, and your water brown. And you ask too many questions.”
“You’re trying to be mean to cover that you’re being nice,” said the girl. She reached forward and took the skin and the fruit. “Will you walk with me back to my mother and my grandfather? If you don’t, someone will take them from me. And if you go, where will you go?”
The woman walked beside her as they approached the main group of refugees, most of whom were again beginning to pick themselves up for the road. She pointed with her chin back the way they had come.
“But the army is that way,” said the girl.
“Yes, and they probably have better peaches.”