This story is by Therese Noble and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Thunk. Every time I close this door behind me unconsciously, habitually I turn one hundred and eighty degrees, walking backwards to look up, always up, at the meeting house and its low, sun-bleached roof. The palm fronds are as perfectly pleated as the day we lay them there, the product of skills honed through years of trial and error, of flooded floors, uneven walls, gaps that allowed free entry to the jungle’s menagerie of snakes and insects.
Water is still dripping from the trees after the thunderstorm and as I wipe away the iridescent droplets trickling into my eyes I make my way to Deeta’s hut. She is my closest friend and it pains me to know she is distraught at the vote’s result, although it is hardly surprising. While she has long since accommodated the paralysis to her right bicep, she continues to nurture, as a blueprint of her past, the zig-zag of puckered scars caused by Gangul’s knife attack.
“Deeta, these young women were only children when we left. They had no part in the decision.”
“And we have protected them. We have a wonderful life here.”
Looking down, I blow on the hot herbal tea Deeta brewed, my hands wrapping round the pottery mug. The warmth as always provides an odd sort of comfort.
“Sheela? Why do you hesitate?”
“We can remember the life we left behind. But maybe…?”
“I know we did what was right then but don’t you …”
“Sheela, we made a deliberate decision to keep away.”
“Yes, we did. Our daughters know our stories, how lucky they are to be here, how we saved them from rape disguised as marriage, they know their mothers live longer here than our mothers did back there. But, Deeta, they still want to return.”
“And we mustn’t let them.”
“We can’t stop them.” I look at her over the rim of my mug. The steam from her own tea floats upwards, obscuring her face. “Your own daughter is restless.”
She leans towards me, her voice a harsh whisper. “We are safe here. If we were still in Stradovan, Michelina would have one baby at her breast, likely three at her feet and two six feet in the ground while she slaved every day in the fields.”
“Deeta, listen to me, please.”
Shaking her head she stands up, turning away from me. “We have drummed our history into their heads for the last twenty years,” she groans.
Yes, we told the truth. Deeta was still, well, pissed off really. I hide my smile at my shocking thought. I quite enjoy the occasional, private lapse into vulgarity. I would have been thrashed had I ever spoken like that before our exodus and sometimes swearing was another pleasant reminder that I am no longer under the thumb of anyone, that no man will slap me again.
“We left our sons behind.” Even as she tilts her head to glare at me, but I can’t help myself. I whisper, “I need to see my sons”.
I worked hard to relegate the images of Teeko and Bretone to the furtherest recesses of my mind. When we abandoned our infant sons, some still on the breast, our wretchedness was multiplied because we knew we were leaving them to the ministrations of men, many of whom have never cared for anyone their whole lives.
It wasn’t really about punishment or revenge. I knew our lives could be better. And so every single female deserted Stradovan one night when the fittest, strongest men were on another raiding party. Haleen knew of this place in the jungle that used to house a much smaller settlement generations ago. It was overgrown when we arrived, the original dwellings all but collapsed under the weight of abandonment. It is a bustling village now, alive with women’s chatter, hair flying freely, laughter. Occasionally I even hear singing.
Deeta, no doubt seeing sadness in my face, put a brawny arm round my shoulders. She is inches taller than me and I resist the temptation to snuggle into her. That way danger lay. If we had deprived all our men the comfort of a woman, we had denied ourselves that same comfort. Not that my Powlan possessed a softer side, but not everyone’s husband or father was a brute. Deeta’s own father, Chahez, for instance, was sympathetic. He supplied us with weapons we didn’t even know how to use. I promised him we would return one day. However, as hopeful as I was, I could not anticipate the success, the absence of fear that our settlement has provided and I have never even considered honouring that vow – until now.
Curling wisps of clouds slide across a periwinkle sky, a breeze strokes our skin. Three weeks ago we began our preparations, choosing the one hundred women for this pilgrimage by ballot. Soon we will have to don our black, hooded cloaks. We are only an hour from Stradovan and we need to prepare.
As the accepted doyenne, I decided earlier that if we meet with anger, the men demand revenge, then I am responsible. I will insist that all blame is mine. Certainly Powlan will be quick to accept that. And my sons? My head is pounding at the possibilities.
“Quiet! Quiet please,” I urge. We are not an army marching in formation but I have to stop myself from raising my right hand and calling ‘Halt’. Deeta slowly steps up. She turns her head left then right as she scans the landscape. She too senses that something is wrong.
I can feel a pulse throb in my jaw. From hope? fear? I squint into the white light ahead where I should be seeing tall sheaths in green and flax. Deeta’s eyes are better than mine. She pushes her hood back and looks at me.
“There are no crops,” she murmurs.
The women insist on moving ahead with us and so, with a silence that makes no real sense, we creep forward. The fortress! The layers of sandstone are scored, like claw marks on soft flesh. The walls have gaps in them, blocks of pale, crumbling stone lie at awkward angles on the ground.
Where are the rifle barrels, the glint of steel? The men?
My throat is like parchment. Rather than the defiant entrance I planned, the negotiations I rehearsed, we steal over the stones with far less grace than bravado and clamber through gaps in the wall. We place one foot soundlessly in front of the other, almost tiptoeing through the eerie streets.
The flesh at the back of my neck prickles. Someone is watching us. More than one someone? I can’t tell.
Thankfully the temple, the tallest and oldest building in Stradovan, is still here. While the roof is sagging, pock-marked with holes, and the tower inclines clumsily, the walls are intact. However the broad double doors, reinforced with thick planks of timber, are jammed tight. Without the keys we can’t enter, not that such sanctuary would be honoured. The thick dust at our feet lies undisturbed, the mounds of litter we saw swirling around the deserted streets is repeated here, piled up against the walls and doors. The debris is disintegrating, limp and scummy but at least it doesn’t reek. Once such sacrilege would have meant death by stoning.
“Sheela,” Deeta whispers, “Don’t turn round but something is flickering from the roof of the men’s bathing house.”
And then a man of medium height, hardened muscles bulging under his rags, calls out to us. His eyes are rimmed in dark circles, his mouth twisted in a grimace. There are at least forty other scruffy men straggling behind him.
Their beards are unkempt, the stench issuing from their bodies is so overpowering we hold our breaths. Their clothes are torn and filthy and, with legs wide apart, some are tapping clubs against their thighs or on the open palm of their hands, and yet I’m not cowed. We out-number them and, while they didn’t understand just what yet, they sense we represent something alien.
“I am Landro. I am in charge here. Are you our women come home? Is one of your number my mother, Umeena, or one of my sisters?”
Stepping forward I tell him that his mother and sisters are safe but they did not accompany us. “Umeena will be happy to know you are well.”
“Tell her I despise her. You,” he spits out his words, his chest rising and falling with the effort to speak, “are all criminals.”
With a pang in my chest, I look at this angry young man. I am glad Umeena is not here to see her son. “Where are the rest of you?”
“Dead! They’re all dead. Some left to bring you back but never returned. Everyone else is buried outside the walls.”
Deeta stumbles forward. “Chahez? My father?”
“Huh! He spilled his guts, literally.” Landro smirked at our cries of distress.
A tall, thin man dressed in trousers secured with twine steps forward and glares at me.
“You’re Sheela, aren’t you?”
My blood is ice. Involuntarily, I start forward only to stop when I see darts of hate sparking from his eyes.
“So you’ve finally realised you can’t do without us? And,” deliberately, provocatively, his eyes sweep over all of us with disdain, “you come begging to return?”
I haven’t prayed for a long time but I am praying now for strength, for resolve. I turn my back on him.
I look at the women arranged in a semi-circle behind me. I see from their looks of horror that we are of one mind. We shouldn’t have come. These are our sons, our brothers, and they are savages. There is no hope of reconciliation.
I turn around. “No, we’re not here to beg. This is a visit merely, to see if we could talk.”
“Just talk, son.”
His voice bitter, his steps deliberate, he comes closer. “I was only seven when you deserted us. You have lost any right to call me son.” He jerks his head back and extends his arms. “Where are the rest of you?”
“They are safe at our new home.”
“This is your home.”
“No, it is not.”
He turns to look at the motley group of men behind him. He gave a signal and, to a man, they all stride forward with grim intent.
“We are the new amazons!” This is my signal to fold back our cloaks and expose the very weapons Chahez had given us. The men look at each other before, more cautiously, they continue to advance, but then we raise the pistols and rifles we have meticulously maintained, aiming them at our own flesh and blood.
“You don’t have what it takes.” Bretone laughs before lunging at the barrel in my hand but I don’t even hesitate as I cock the trigger. He hesitates only briefly before he attempts to wrench the gun from me. I fire.
We have had twenty years to master the use of these weapons and my aim is true.
Less steady now, I look down at Bretone. He collapses in the dirt, blood from the wound seeping through the fingers clutching his shoulder. Landro, teeth bared, nostrils flaring, but obedient to my command, kicks aside rubbish and unlocks he doors to the temple. Supporting my son, he precedes the men inside.
As we begin the long trek back, leaving behind the men who were once our family, I hear a piercing, keening wail. I drop to my knees in the dirt before I realise that the sound is coming from my own mouth. The stories, the history, the traditions of our people can be traced back hundreds of years. It is agonizing to accept that when we return to our settlement, the once proud tribe of Stradovan will be doomed to extinction.