On the run

This is Tamikha, the girl Erian picked up in Iss-Peran. Tamych in Ilaini is “little mouse”.

The Khas came when we were at the stream doing the laundry, young women and little kids, and we couldn’t do anything except run. Ayese saw them first. She was watching the little ones while we were rinsing and talking, because she had to feed the baby all the time. I picked up Idi, who was four and heavy, but I could run faster carrying him than he could run on his own and Deta was too pregnant to carry him. When we’d run so far that we couldn’t hear fighting any more, we stopped running but still kept going, away from the village, not really anywhere, just away.

Days, weeks. It was the dry season now and we’d lost the stream. Nothing to drink and hardly anything to eat. The little ones all died– the baby first, because Ayese’s milk dried up, and she hadn’t even been named yet. I carried Idi for half a day after he stopped whimpering and found him dead in my arms. Suad stepped into a hole and broke her leg and asked Ayese to cut her throat because she’d never keep up and die anyway, but Ayese wouldn’t, so Suad grabbed the knife and cut her own throat. Then of course the knife was unclean and we couldn’t make a fire to purify it so we buried it with her, and it was the only good knife we had. I’d lent mine to Mosa to sharpen his fish spears with, because he was at that awkward age that boys have when they’ve got their spears but not yet their knife. I hope he stuck it into a Khas, and his fish spears too!

Now we were only five women, Ayese and Lina and Bebasi and Deta and me. I almost said “four women and a girl” but I’m a woman too, after all Biki and I went into the bushes at the harvest feast and we did it, because we both wanted to know what it was like. It hurt a little, and tickled a lot, and I bled when he tore my maiden-skin. I smeared him with the blood to mark him as mine, and he gave me my woman-name, Tamikha, “sweet fruit”. If the Khas hadn’t come, in a few years Biki would have come to our hut with two spears for Father and two cooking-pots for Mother and the gold ring from his right ear for me, to match the one in his left ear, and we’d have set up for ourselves and had some babies. I pray to Mother Assa that Biki ran the other way, but I’m afraid he’s dead too.

I say Khas all the time, but I didn’t know that that’s what they call themselves before I came here. We called them “the raiders” and “the destroyers”, and after traders had told us that they wanted to fight and conquer, “the enemy”.

Eventually we came to a wide road, and Lina said it would be good to follow it because the closer to the main road, the more people who might shelter us. But before we could go anywhere there was a great noise that made us hide in the forest. Lots and lots and lots of Khas passed, and more Khas, all in a hurry, and where they passed they made the road even wider.

At last they seemed to be gone, but when we wanted to come out we stumbled on a couple of stragglers come into the wood for a piss. One made to grab me and I ran, and he couldn’t come after me fast enough because he had his breeches around his ankles. But there were two more with no breeches on at all, and it looked as if it wasn’t just a piss that they’d taken them off for! I couldn’t run anywhere, it was pointless to fight but I fought anyway so it needed both of them to hold me, and then suddenly everything became red and I thought “that’s the end of Tamikha!”– I was already saying my prayers to Naha and Mother Assa. Then I felt my face being wiped with a rough cloth and I could see again. It was a man doing it– well, he was man-shaped but bigger, with strange red clothes on and hairy arms and a red face that the skin was peeling off of, like a demon from the stories, so I knew I must be dead. But he smelt like a man, and most of the red on his clothes was blood, apparently not his or mine because he wasn’t missing any limbs and I didn’t feel any wounds.

The demon gave me some water to drink that tasted like rotten fruit, and a dried date to eat, then another, then decided that I’d had enough– and I couldn’t have eaten any more, after so much hunger those two sweet dates almost made me sick. He talked to me but I didn’t understand him, and I tried to tell him that but he didn’t understand me either. After a while some more demons came to fetch us. Perhaps they were people after all, there were women too and not everybody was as big or as red as my demon. There were a lot of dead people lying about, most were Khas, with Ayese and Lina and Bebasi and Deta among them, dead because they hadn’t run so fast as me or hadn’t had a helpful demon to kill their Khas for them. Some women and men were heaving the dead Khas on to a wood-pile and pointed at the women, at the pile and at a hole they’d dug: did I want them buried or burnt? Buried, I pointed, and then sat down next to Ayese and cried, for the first time since I’d left home, I hadn’t cried for the baby or Idi or even Suad, but now I couldn’t help crying because I hadn’t been there when they died and I ought to have been dead too.

After crying I prayed, even though my demon was getting impatient, but a woman kept him away. I think she was the priestess. I did have to leave, of course, and the demon –by that time I was sure he was a man after all, a soldier, a foreigner– took me with him. Someone had built a wall of logs right next to me as I was crying and praying, with a door in it that we went through. There was a sort of village there, all the houses built of cloth. I know a word for that now: ‘tent’. He took me to the tent where he lived, and the first thing I saw was a reed mat just like the ones at home, so I curled up on it and fell asleep.