CHAPTER ONE Day I
Each row has exactly as many pods as my fingers—ten. And there are exactly as many rows as my fingers on one hand. Five. I’ve laid them out on the ground perfectly. It’s my job to tie precisely fifty bean pods into the cloth because I’m good at numbers, better than my parents. When the cart is full of these cloth parcels, my little brothers will bring them to market. An open cart of beans is vulnerable. Any passing person can snatch a handful, and since a handful is worth nothing in barter, the thief won’t even get in trouble. By the time an open cart of beans reaches market, the vendor might have nothing left. But tied in cloth, the beans matter—anyone who tried to steal would get a public flogging.
So I count with care. And I tie the cloth tight, but not so tight that the knot is hard to undo. When my brothers trade the
beans, they will untie the cloth and dump the beans into each customer’s basket. The saved bits of cloth come back to me. My brothers are supposed to be careful, but they aren’t always. Especially if they’re rushing because there’s another customer waiting. And if the cloth rips, it’s my job to repair it. I hate that job. I’m better at counting. And planting. I love planting. Someday, when I have my own children, I’ll grow every kind of fruit and green and feed them lavishly. They’ll love the evening meal, everyone talking and laughing.
I look out over the bean field now. Planting season is past. This is the last harvest of summer. My naturally dark skin is even darker now; just a few shades lighter than my hair, since the sun has been dying the one while bleaching the other.
I love going to market almost as much as I love planting. It’s exciting to see all the people with all their wares. I used to go often. But ever since my body changed, Father has insisted I stay at home. I’m thin—only rich people aren’t—but I’m womanly now. Someone in town could grab me, pull me between buildings, into a dark place, alone.
No one’s allowed to do that. But it happens. Years ago, a girl told. I know, because when I protested at being left behind on market days, Mamma sat me down and explained it all. The girl told on a man, a city man. He was beaten, despite his wealth. A couple of moons later, another girl stumbled home with blood gushing from her mouth. Her tongue had been cut out. I imagined her choking to death, drowning in her own blood.
When they went to wash her corpse, they found blood crusted on her thighs.
In all the years since, no girls have told.
Mamma says if you stray into town alone and it happens to you, it’s your own fault. Father says girls shouldn’t be alone anywhere close to town. If they are, they’re asking for it. Town is lawless when it comes to girls. Everyone knows that.
I hold up a bean pod into the bright sunlight. I’m gigantic compared to this pod, but in town anyone can steal me just the same.
A drop of water hits the pod. I twist around quickly. What idiot did that? The beans have to stay dry. One wet bean can rot a whole batch. I don’t see anyone nearby, though. The culprit is fast. I slit the length of the pod with my thumbnail and scrape the inside against my bottom teeth, so the beans pop off into my mouth. Beans taste better cooked, but I’ve always liked the crunch of ones straight from the pod, and five little raw beans aren’t enough to give a stomachache.
Water comes. A huge splash, like a bucket dumped on my head. But it’s the entire sky that’s dumping. One moment ago the sky was clear. Now, just like that, the clouds darken it and fat drops come in profusion, hitting the ground so hard they bounce before bursting.
I grab as many parcels of beans as I can and run toward the house. The rain comes so fast now, I can’t see past my own arm. And it’s dark. As though day ceased in a blink. I burst through
the door and stand dripping into the dry grasses that cover the dirt floor of the small main room.
Mamma has already lit the candle that sits in the middle of the table. “Rain this time of year. It’s a whole month early.” She shakes her head with a look of confusion on her face and turns again to face the loom. “I suppose we should be grateful. The way it’s coming down, we won’t have to carry buckets to water the field for days. I just hope this doesn’t mean an early winter. We aren’t ready for winter yet.”
I put the beans on the table. I lift the pouch that hangs from my neck over my head and drop it on the table too. It hits with a small thunk, because of the knife inside it. I peel off my tunic with difficulty—the wet wool clings to my torso—and drape it over the bench. Instantly the swamp kit screams to be picked up.
“Scruffy kit,” I say. “You’re a strange one.”
I put my face to his. “You waited till I took off my soaked things before you demanded to be picked up. You waited on purpose, didn’t you?”
My brothers found this kit in the wetlands last week—that’s his natural home. But he seems not to like water at all. The boys find that hilarious. They’ve taken to filling their mouths with water and spraying it at him, then rolling with laughter as he races to hide behind me. They can be so nasty, those boys.
I close my hand over the kit’s head, something the little creature likes. I’m glad my brothers brought him home. Kits born so
late in the season don’t have much chance of survival. “Hey, little kit, lucky little kit. What have you been doing all morning?”
He pulls his head away and swats at me playfully. But Mamma now moves to the side of the loom, so I don’t have time to play more. Her small hands are already at work. My hands are bigger and stronger, but hers are more clever. I quickly kneel at the opposite side of the loom. We pass the shuttle back and forth between us. It’s faster this way, even though Mamma is adept on her own.
The kit won’t be put off that easily, though. He goes to climb my side, digs his claws into my thigh. With a quick swipe, I lift him to my shoulder, not missing a pass of the shuttle. I glance down. Two lines of blood bubbles rise on that thigh. The little creature turns in a precarious circle in that space between my shoulder and neck and he tickles bad.
“I know you hate my wet hair,” I say. “But you picked that spot. So sit still or get off.” Finally he settles, curled under the drape of my hair.
The shuttle goes back and forth in a steady rhythm. The kit’s breath is just as rhythmic against my skin. But the noise of the rain, the dull thrum on the roof, is chaotic. It fills the air. Usually we sing as we work, but now we don’t even talk.
My brothers must have taken shelter somewhere nearby. They knew if they came home, Mamma would set them to work on the mice skins that soak in the waste bucket. The urine and feces have done their job by now. It’s time to fish the skins out of
the stink and scrape off the loosened hairs so Mamma can sew Papa a new carry bag. Jackal skins make a better bag—they’re bigger, so the bag isn’t crisscrossed with so many seams. And the skin is thicker, so they last longer. If they don’t get stolen. That’s the problem. Papa won’t carry anything but a mouse-skin bag into town these days.
“You’re looking at that bucket.” Mamma screws up her mouth. “You’d do the job faster than your brothers. And better.”
Oh no. Cleaning those skins will be a foul job.
“But forget it,” she says. “Papa won’t risk the stink on your hands.”
I lower my head to hide my smile. One advantage of being a girl. Papa must protect my reputation so he can marry me off, which won’t be for another couple of years if Mamma has her way. I’m already sixteen, but Mamma says I’m too useful to give up. That’s just as well with me. My friend Hurriya’s father told her to pick a husband fast or he’ll marry her off this autumn. Her younger sisters can do all the chores she does—so they don’t need her. She’s worried all the time. I’m lucky to be needed. It gives me time to find a husband who suits me.
A gust of wind bursts through the window. The candle goes out. It’s black as midnight in the room.
Mamma gets the flint, and with a smack the candle is alight again.
Another gust of wind. Black again. I can make out the bulk of Mamma standing there. Waiting. She curves forward these days, like a long-handled spoon.
“I’ll close the shutters.” I disentangle the swamp kit from my hair and set him on the floor. He screams. I go to lean out the window, but the wind is too strong to pull the shutters. So instead I walk toward the door.
“No, Sebah. Don’t go out in that. It can’t last long.” Mamma lights the hearth fire, though it isn’t time to prepare the evening meal yet. “There, let’s see the wind that’s strong enough to put that out.”
I kneel at the side of the loom again, and the yowling kit leaps into my hands. But Mamma stays standing. So I get up and stand at Mamma’s side. I’m taller than her, the way she stoops. That makes her seem weaker. An urge of protectiveness seizes me; I want to fold my arms around her. But Mamma has little tolerance for such nonsense. We look out at the rain while I run my hand over the kit’s pointy ears.
Lightning pierces the sky—a handful of streaks at once—like the five fingers of an angry god. Is it Ba’al? Then the roll of thunder. That’s Ba’al’s voice.
“I can’t remember a rain so harsh.” Mamma scratches her cheek. “At this rate, we’ll have a flash flood.”
I take a step closer to Mamma. Our arms touch. “What’s that?”
“I saw one once. The riverbed beside our home was dry. Then it poured and in no time at all it was a raging torrent. It overflowed the banks and swirled through our home, so deep, you’d have thought we had built it in the river itself. It washed
away almost everything we owned. It would have washed us away if my father hadn’t tied us to the roof beams. It was crazy. Even streams turned wild.”
“Oh!” My hand flies to my mouth. “I bet they’re in the cave!” The cave is on the far side of the stream.
Mamma’s eyes instantly widen. “My boys.”
“I’ll get them.” I grab for my mantle.
Mamma catches her arm. “Put on your tunic first.”
“It’s sopping.” I’ve already wrapped the mantle around myself. I tie it at the front. The kit sinks his claws into the cloth. I try to dislodge him, but he screams and digs deeper.
“Let the stubborn thing ride on your shoulder if he insists. He’ll jump off fast enough and come screeching back here. Go, Sebah! Run!”
I step out into a downpour that is far worse than it looked from the window, and from the window it looked hateful. I know the way with my eyes closed, though. And even if I didn’t, the stream would tell me, for in this very moment it grows noisy. It roars. I run. The flaps of the mantle slap against my legs in a tangle. I fall, and get up quick and lift the mantle above my knees, clutching with both hands, and I run. I run past our field, past another field, through the small stand of woods, out into the meadow where skinny cows stand like mottled stone in the downpour.
To the stream at last. It’s high. It flows faster than any water I’ve ever seen. And it’s not the clear water it’s always been; it’s brown with mud.
On the other side are my brothers, all three of them. They stand at the mouth of the cave in water ankle deep, holding hands. I can see their heads bobbing, as though they’re agreeing with one another. “Come!” I beckon them with a huge wave of the arm. They have to get out of there before the waters rise higher and they’re trapped. “Come home! Now!” I shout and shout.
They come out, one behind the other, and they have to drop hands now. They step from stone to stone. But the water’s already over the surface of the high stones and it’s fast, it’s so fast. With a scream Barak is knocked off his feet. Talas reaches to pull him back, but he slips too. They plummet downstream into deeper, faster waters. The third in line is little Amare, only in his eighth year. He doesn’t scream or shout. He teeters, arms held out to both sides, pressing against the raging waters. He has to make it. “Amare!”
I jump into the stream and am instantly thrown off my feet. No! Where is he? I can’t see anything. I can’t regain my footing, so I scrabble to all fours and look around. Amare’s gone. “Where are you?”
They’re all gone. I’m shouting and flailing around for them, but they’re gone.
And the stream is a roiling river. I claw my way to the closest edge—the far edge—and roll away. The water follows me. The river widens by the second. An uprooted sapling slams into me. Then another. I get to my feet and run at a slant, uphill. The
ground is mud now. It sucks at my feet. I clump as fast as I can. The water swirls around my calves.
A fox goes swimming past! A mountain fox, way down here!
I look back. The cows on the field on the other side of the stream are gone. Maybe it’s just that I can’t see them through the sheet of rain. They’ve got to be there. Cows are big.
My brothers. I turn in a circle. They’re nowhere to be seen.
The water is at my knees.
The ground here is a gradual incline, and the water is climbing fast. I head for the promontory, where it’s bare rock going nearly straight up. I grit my teeth; I’m not a good climber. Amare is the best climber in the family.
I slog through the water and at least now it’s pushing at me from behind. It takes so long to get to the rock face. The water is at my waist now. It crashes against the limestone. I climb, feet and fingers seeking crevices, jamming in and hooking. Higher and higher.
I’m out of the water at last. I’m panting. Everything is so slippery. I have to keep moving or I’ll slide into the pool below. But I can’t keep moving. I have no energy.
Something falls somewhere, splat into the water below. It splashes the back of my legs. Move! I reach up, and, what? My hand flaps around in an opening. I pull myself up so my eyes are level with that hand. It’s a small area, not a cave, not even a proper ledge, just a rock shelf. But at least it offers a respite from the work of clinging. I climb onto it and sit, my knees against
my chest, my arms tight around them. I know my fingers bleed, but I don’t want to suck on them. I want to keep my knees as close to my chest as possible, and the only way to do that is to hold them in place with my arms. I must stay curled. I must shrink into a tight stone that can fend off the elements.
Perhaps the rain lessens a little or perhaps my eyes somehow work better, because for an instant I can see far out below—it seems like far—and all I see is water.
Mamma, Papa, Barak, Talas, Amare. I swallow. But they’re all stronger than me. All except Amare. They’re already on high ground. They have to be. When it stops raining, we will find one another, the whole family.
Something pinches my neck. I slap at it in terror. But it’s the swamp kit. Soaked to the bone. I pull on him till he comes free, strands of yarn still caught under his claws. He held on like a devilish fiend! Good. Good for him. I curl him into a ball under my chin, and I cradle him there with one hand closed over his head.