This story is by Michelle Davis and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The horse-drawn wagon jerked and rattled down the uneven dirt road. The spring floods had deteriorated the roads until they were almost unrecognizable. Every jolt of the wagon picked at Sarah’s resolve. Her heart sank with each barren tree they passed.
The wind shifted and a cold blast of air whipped through the cart sending a shiver up Sarah’s spine. She ran a hand over her hair making sure each strand was neatly secured. Her father sat next to her holding the reigns, red cheeked from the wind but showing no signs of discomfort as the temperature continued to drop.
“Peter, would you please hand your sister a cloak?” He called back to her older brother.
“I’m fine father.” She said
“Nonsense,” Her father declared while her brother placed a cloak around her shoulders. “It won’t do to become ill before the trading.”
It was the most her father had spoken the entire journey. His tone had been neutral, but the lines on his face were drawn tight. Making him look older.
As the Wagon slowed to a stop Sarah tugged at the sleeves of her blouse, trying to smooth out wrinkles that had formed during the ride. The rest of the townsfolk came to a stop around them, forming a circle in which they would stay until the morning when the caravan would return home.
Peter began unloading sacks of flour. He had gone thru the trade two years ago, and had been chosen initially. At the end of the day he went home thanks to their father’s bartering skills.
As the Town’s council leader her Father held some clout, and Peter had already found a mate among the villagers and slated to take over as the town leader once our father retired. She wasn’t sure that the other council members would allow him to save another one of his children. Especially one that was a little eccentric. Sarah wasn’t sure she wanted him to try.
Sarah dismounted from the wagon and looked about the townsfolk. Most of the older men and women began working at once. Setting up small tents and displaying their wares. In the center was a group of men and women that had been considered children at last year’s trading, running freely and playing in the open field. This year they sat quietly whispering to each other, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the outlanders.
Sarah thought of joining them, but instead hopped down to help her brother unload the heavy sacks. She wanted to work off some of her nervous energy and they fell into their usual comfortable silence.
Sarah stretched her back and wiped a light sheen of sweat from her brow. She had shed her cloak as the physical labor and sun had warmed her weary bones. As she rested the chatter of the townsfolk died and something approaching on the horizon became the focus of everyone’s attention.
The outlanders had arrived.
“You don’t have to feel guilty.” Peter said suddenly.
Sarah raised an eyebrow as her only response.
“It’s okay to want more, I’ve known you since you were born.” He said as he heaved the last of the flour onto the trading pile. “You were made for something different than village life. I hope they choose you sister.” He paused coming to put an arm around her. “Although I must admit. I would miss you terribly.”
The Prairie women ambled in groups next to the wagons. Their hair dancing wildly and their skirts whipping about their legs in the gusts of cold wind blowing across the fields.
When the outlanders parked their wagons, it was in pods with no semblance of order. The bulky men effortlessly unloaded their goods. Sacks of harvested grain, dried fruits, and canned vegetables chaotically lined the area around their wagons.
Sarah barely recognized the previous year’s trades. Their darkened skin and easy smiles made them look like complete strangers. She smiled shyly at the old friends.
She wondered what it was like. Leaving the quiet and simple life of the village for a life filled with laughter, passion, hard work and open skies.
Her father’s presence interrupted her reverie. “It’s time.” he said looking toward the trading rock. The trades were lining up across from each other. A few held on to family and sobbed as they approached to line.
Sarah simply nodded at her father before taking the first heavy step to her place in the line. At least it would all be over today she thought to herself. If she was chosen she would have to leave the safety of the walls for the wildness of the open planes.
The historians claimed the trades were to keep blood ties with the outlanders. That once upon a time each side thought themselves superior to the other, believing they had a better way to live. They fought each other and many innocent lives were lost. The elders of old decided that a trade would take place after each harvest. In a peace council it was decided that every year they would trade goods, and five men and women that had only recently reached adulthood.
Her Father began walking along the outlander candidates, choosing which ones would be designated for the town while the Outlander leader did the same. Sarah stared at her feet imagining scenarios that would happen if she was chosen, and even worse ones if she wasn’t.
The head of the outlander council stepped toward Sarah. She was tall, tanned and lean. Her skin was weathered and had a warm smile. She grasped Sarah’s hand and pulled her forward. Her calloused hand was gentle. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat and her breathing quickened; her excitement growing.
Ten outlanders and ten townsfolk were chosen initially, only half of them would actually be traded. The council members disappeared into a tent to do the final bartering on which men and women would leave their homes and begin a new life.
Sarah stood in her place looking out onto the planes, wondering what lay beyond the horizon. Groups of townsfolk collected their children, comforting those that had been chosen as the initial shock wore off. No one came to comfort her. She hadn’t expected them to. Instead Sarah headed back to her wagon and spread out a few blankets to lay on.
The bag she had packed her belongings in seemed small now. She brought no clothing or essentials, only sentimental trinkets that she didn’t want to leave behind: A family portrait, a few books, her grandmother’s necklace. The book she chose was old and well-worn to the point the binding was coming off. The title on the cover was fading away.
She read until the dinner bell rang. It was a quiet walk to the celebration tent. The temperature had dropped significantly and the grey sky and cutting wind whispered of snow. Small fires were lit next to the wagons. It would be a cold and weary night for all.
She was the last of the initial chosen to arrive. Her father wouldn’t make eye contact with her and the rest of the council gave no clues as to who would be chosen, and who would stay.
As her father called her name a sense of relief washed over her. She would miss her family, but her parents had other children to look after and times had been hard on everyone. It would help to have one less mouth to feed.
When the ceremony was finished she finally caught her father’s eye. He looked weary, as if he had aged ten years since she had seen him this morning. She smiled at him. Nervous energy coursing thru her as she turned to join her new life.
The outlander woman smiled at her. “Come.” Sarah followed her and the other four townsfolk to the outlander camp.
Music poured out around campfires and laughter rolled deep into the night. The free-spirited women danced around the fires with their mates.
“We will provide a change of clothing for those of you that wish to change out of the constricting garments, of course you are more than welcome to keep them if you like.”
“I’d love too.” Sarah said to the woman.
When she emerged she walked over to the woman. She swirled and skipped in her dress.
“This is more comfortable than my night dress.” She giggled. “Can you take down my hair?” She asked.
“Of course.” The woman replied positioning herself behind Sarah. “I knew you would like it here.”
“But why choose me?”
“You weren’t afraid, you were excited. The difference was subtle, but there. After all these years I’ve learned to notice the difference. Enough chit chat from an old woman like me,” she said releasing the last of hair. “go on now and make some new friends, reconnect with some old ones and celebrate tomorrow before it gets here.”