Sailing and hiding
When she gets emotional, she rambles more. And again I may not have all the events completely correct, though the spirit is there.
If it ends in an awkward place, that’s because I wanted to post this for people to read while I rack my brain about the incident that comes next (I think; if it came earlier, so be it).
So there we were on a ship. It didn’t agree with Erian, he got very quiet and went about the colour the king had been, but I loved it, it was just like being carried on Erian’s shoulders except that I could walk about. There were lots of other soldiers being sick, but the ones who weren’t called me “a proper little sailor” and that surprised me, because I wasn’t even a soldier let alone a sailor! But I put it with the other things I can learn to be when we get to Valdyas.
We were on the ship for some days and nights until we came to something that looked like a white mountain to me at first, but it was the city. This was a big city! I don’t know how many times Kushesh could have fit inside it. Erian said there were as many people living in it as in all of Valdyas. We didn’t see any people inside the city, because there were high walls of stone all around it, but when we got off the ship (my legs still thought I was on it, it was like the ground was swaying under my feet) there was a big camp outside the city and we settled there just like we’d done in the other camps. After a few days the soldiers were called to go and fight, and Erian hugged me as if he was going to break me, and I promised him to pray for him. He made me promise again to go to Halla and Alaise if he didn’t come back, silly, because I had already promised with all of the proper words, but of course he was worried. So I prayed to Ansah first, and then to Mother Assa and all the good gods, but not to the Other One of course, and not to Naha because it’s bad luck to pray to Naha for the living.
This wasn’t a regular camp really, because it was of different armies, and I fell in with some women and their little kids who were speaking all different languages I didn’t understand yet but they were nice to be with. We were there for days as the soldiers were fighting, and they didn’t come back! And then the enemy came out of the city and ran over us, not fighting us or trying to rape us, just ran over everything in their way, and I snatched a crawling baby away just in front of someone’s feet and slashed at him with my knife and he fell and died, because I’d cut the big pumping blood-vessel in his leg. He was very young, only a little older than me, and his skin was mud-brown like an elephant’s instead of red-brown like mine. I thought that he might be a mixture of Khas and something else and not the enemy at all, but fleeing from the fighting. But I’d killed him and he hadn’t killed himself, so though my knife was unclean it wasn’t so unclean that I couldn’t purify it myself even though I didn’t have any fire, I could do it with water and herbs and prayers.
When the running people were gone most of the women had fled, all the tall dark ones with eyes like antelopes and some of the others. All our things were trampled and broken, and one of the women I could understand a bit said we’d better go into the city because we’d be safer there, if there was more fighting or fleeing we could hide in a house that people had fled away from. It was so much like fleeing the Khas from the village that it was creepy, even down to me carrying a toddler, but this time it was a girl a lot smaller than Idi and easier to carry. We made our way over broken stone walls, and we lost some people on the way, not because they died but because they went another way, and then we came to a big house that looked empty. There were three of us by then, Suna with her baby boy, and me with the toddler, and the toddler’s mother, Kumar, who was about thirty and had a new baby too. “You can see if there’s anybody alive in that house!” Kumar told me. That baffled me but I tried to look as hard as I could, and somehow I could see that Suna and Kumar and the babies were alive but not anybody else nearby, so I said “nobody, I think” and we went in through the ruined wall and found two dead people, a man and a woman, but no living people at all. We buried them under the rubble from the wall. Now prayers to Naha were in order, and I said as many as I could remember, I don’t think Kumar or Suna knew any.
I don’t know how long we lived in that house. There was food in the kitchen, flour and water and vegetables and fruit and rice, no meat or fish– according to Suna it was because the people living here were Síthi and they don’t eat animals or fish. We could live her for a while and wait for news from the soldiers. Kumar became despondent, she’d had dreams that had almost been fulfilled, she’d been a very successful painted woman but she was getting too old for it and was planning a different life, and now the war had broken all of that. I don’t know exactly what happened but one day we found her dead in the kitchen and I had to say the prayers to Naha again. Suna had enough milk for both babies, fortunately.
And then the real enemy came. I don’t know whether it was Khas or our own soldiers gone savage or just plain thugs, but they were in the house before we knew. Suna told me to take the little ones and hide, so I crawled into a water-pot in the kitchen that had only a little water left in it, trying to keep the little ones quiet. Later she told me that I’d made all of us invisible, but I don’t believe that, I’m not a witch! She stayed in the front part of the house, keeping the soldiers away from us by offering herself to them, and about ten of them raped her (I didn’t know that at the time, but I learned later) while I was being invisible. When I didn’t hear any noise I looked very hard if there was anybody alive again, and I didn’t see anyone, not even Suna. I lifted the little ones out first and then tried to crawl out myself, but it was all slippery and wet and I fell and bruised my knee before I could manage to reach the top.
I thought Suna was dead, so I put some rice to soak so I could at least give the babies rice-water and only then went to look for her. But when I found her she was alive, though only barely. I didn’t know what to do, but I prayed to Mother Assa –I’ve never prayed so fiercely in my life!– and she told me what medicines from Bat’nu’s basket to use and what to do with them. I prepared the medicines as if in a dream, and gave them to Suna, and they seemed to work though she was still very weak. She had milk, though, and could suckle the babies, so the little girl and I ate the soaked rice ourselves because I couldn’t make a fire, it was too wet because of the rainy season and the broken kitchen roof.
There was enough food in the house to last us for twenty or thirty days. I was careful to use all the vegetables and fruit and whatever could spoil first, so we were left with only coconuts at the end –those never spoil, at least not before you have next year’s harvest– and I was pining for one of Hala’s bananas. “We can’t stay here,” Suna said, “let’s go into the city, there will be people there who can help us.” So we did that, I had to lead Suna and take care of the babies, because she couldn’t touch her own baby– carry and feed him, but not wash or change him, she said she’d had enough of men forever. And a baby boy may not be a man yet, but he does have man-parts however small.
I hadn’t known it was such a long way through the city. It was a very strange place, with high white walls everywhere instead of houses, but Suna said that those were the houses, with all the living-space on the inside as if each house was a small army camp. There wasn’t anyone in the street, very creepy. We must have walked for days, Suna carrying the babies and I the little girl, and I wore out my sandals and walked in my bare feet that were used to forest ground or army-camp mud, not sharp ruined-city stones. When we couldn’t take it any more, and Suna was getting a bit mad –she’d been mad ever since all the men had had her and not shown it, but her eyes were glazing over now– I did my find-living-people trick again to find which house had both women and children in it, and I found one and knocked at the door. Don’t be invisible this time, I said to myself, and then a boy opened the door and ran back inside when he saw us and came back with an old woman who beckoned us in. We got food and drink, and I think clean clothes, and could wash ourselves, and then the boy took me to a room with gods in it, where a small fire was burning, and said “Dayati!” (and I know now that that is Deimede and that she is called Timoine in Valdyas) so I knelt and prayed and cried.
When I was done praying the boy took me to the courtyard and wrote in the sand on the floor: a sign I didn’t understand but I knew was Iss-Peranian, a different sign I didn’t understand and the Valdyan letter ‘a’, pointing at each in turn, so I nodded at the Valdyan letter because I could understand that language and I thought that was what he meant. He couldn’t speak any Ilaini, though, so he did it all with signs: the sun travelling through the sky, one, sleep, eat, go. We could stay one day and one night. That was all right with me– I wanted to get to the army anyway, to find Erian.
We slept on the floor somewhere, and in the morning the boy came for us again with the old woman. When the old woman looked at me I knew she was a witch, she looked right through me like the Valdyan witch had done. Then she nodded and smiled and waved us on our way.