Some work-in-progress. Trying to get back on the wagon here. I’ve got a new writing time from 8-9:30 every night. Let’s try it on for size.
I’ve tried starting this particular story several times, but this is the first opening I’ve written where the setting feels right and the main character isn’t a total asshole.
Yousra had always feared the bodies. Not the ones she killed, no, but the ones out on the hill that the heroes had left to the dung beetles and markflies. The children she killed were marked for death from birth – deformed children, dumb and blind, their twisted bodies already rotten and gangrenous in the womb. Those were the bodies she was tasked with gutting and burning before dawn. Some wombs drew up the pollution of the world, condensed it, spat it back out. That offal was hers.
But the bodies on the hill were men, just men. Tawny and smooth-featured, they were beautiful, all of them… The heroes skinned them from claws to tail and left them to die in the sun. A reminder to others of what waited for them beyond the thorny fence of the village. Some nights, before the double dawn, Yousra would climb up on the hill amid the babies’ ashes and listen to the men scream from beyond the thorn fence.
Most days, she merely did her duty and came home. Burned her clothes. Washed her hair in her mothers’ blood. Then she slept the peculiar sleep of the priests, the sleep-that-was-not. Her body remained alert while she dreamed, and dreamed, and dreamed. Sometimes she remembered the conversations she had with those who visited while she slept, but more often – especially now – she remembered little more than the dreaming.
So when Ashet, the priest from the neighboring village, greeted her that day and said they had an appointment, she followed after him willingly, blindly. She pulled on a fresh robe of hemp and thorns and tied her machete at her hip. She had never done much more with the machete than murder the village’s mewling monsters and cut back weeds, but the weight of it comforted her. A silly thing, to fear another priest enough to wear her machete. What did she have to fear, from a priest? They were not heroes. She knew that well enough. But she also knew that as things got worse, the people were becoming more desperate. Just three days before, a woman burned her husbands and herself. She had run out beyond the thorn fence, covered in flaming pitch, and died screaming and clawing at the earth.
Yousra and Ashet walked to the edge of the village, side by side. She nearly took his hand. It would have been polite. But instead, they strolled along the thorn fence a hands’ length apart. Above them, the heroes’ ships roared across the purple sky, so high up they were merely silver thrushes.
The big amber leaves of the walking trees shivered as they passed. Every year, the trees grew a new root, pulled up the old, and slowly crept out past the thorn fence. Another three or four years and half their flock would have escaped the thorn fence. Half the flock gone over into the wastelands, the unprotected lands, would leave their fields with barely enough shelter from the ravages of the autumn winds. Ten years more, and the fields would simply blow away.
“Have you thought much upon my offer?” Ashet asked.
Yousra had to think long and hard about that. What was the last offer he’d put to her?
“The marriage?” she said, because in her mind, all of his requests – for milking ale, more time at the village school, a day with her lending library – blurred together into one long litany of need, a black hole of desires she had no interest in filling.
“Marriage is an outdated notion,” he said. “We make families from the dust out here, or no families at all. My brother is anxious to meet with you. I believe the three of us will be a fine fit.”
A fine fit, three to a bed. Yousra had never wanted more than two husbands. She was not greedy. A man to work the fields and bring in income, and a man to raise her babies and keep her house. But there were fewer and fewer women now, and she had to think of the others first. If she wanted to be headwoman someday, she must do what was right for the village, not her comfort. Was it fair to expect her sisters to marry three brothers, while she took only two?
“I’m thinking on it,” she said, which was a polite way to refuse. He knew that as well as she, but he persisted.
“It would be a good life, Yousra. My brother has a fine farm in –”
“I’ve seen his farm,” Yousra said. She’d tended every farm for thirty kilometers in every direction. Every farm left within the thorn fence. Fewer every year, as the wasteland encroached. “I delivered his wife’s babies. All of them.”
“Yes,” Ashet said, and his expression darkened. He fell silent.
Yousra tried to remember the wife, but could recall nothing of her but the sour smell of milk and wine gone to vinegar. Yousra had delivered her twins – two sets of them – all monsters. The woman killed herself not long after. She was not the first. Would not be the last. A waste and a terror, to lose so many women to pollution and madness.
“Is it the labor you fear?” Ashet asked.
Yousra looked at him sideways, then turned away, to look out past the fence. Out on the dry, desiccated land, the skeleton of a thorn tree marked the horizon. In her youth, the tree marked the beginning of her mother’s starch farm. Three hundred acres of soy, yams, and grizzled water pears. Waves and waves of it, all through the growing season. Now… just death. Barren and diseased, like Yousra’s people. She absently touched the machete at her hip, thought of the dead woman.
“I don’t fear birth. I fear that marriages and more children won’t be what saves us.”
Ashet smiled. “It’s the only thing that can.”
“Is it? To continue with a way of life that’s dying? When a man comes to you with a rotten wound, do you tell him to continue with his work?”
“We aren’t rotten.”
“Aren’t we?” She pointed out beyond the skeletal tree. “My mothers are buried out there. Their bodies ate them from the inside, long before the heroes came. Something rotten has been planted here, and we must cut it out.”
Ashet sighed. He pulled his hands behind his back, paused. “Marry us, Yousra. There is still happiness to be had here.”
“Happiness, yes,” Yousra said, but she was not looking at him. She was looking out at the tree. “But not a future.”