Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your priestess brought me to the monastery. There I saw your statue for the first time. There I turned away from you for the first time. But before you, there was another …
“Here, little one. Sit here.”
Sukhbir, the older of the priestess’s guards, points to a broken wall well away from the crowd. Girl sits. She likes Sukhbir. He’s kind and gentle and makes her laugh. He’s her friend, and she’s never had a friend before.
The young guard, Lal, is nice enough, but smells of rice wine and raksi, reminding her of Aprakash. The priestess is beautiful, but far away somehow, as if always thinking important thoughts.
And Sukhbir is the one who bought clothes for Girl – new clothes, not ragged cast-offs – which keep her warm as they climb higher and higher into the mountains. He’s the one who holds her when she’s sick, which is often, as she isn’t used to having such rich food and so much to eat. And he’s the one she rides with, sitting before him on his great horse, while he tells her about the monastery and the priestesses, who she mustn’t call “lady” but “honoured one”, because the Lady is the goddess, the Lady of Six Aspects, though Girl doesn’t know what an aspect is. But whatever Sukhbir says to do, she does. So when he says “Sit here.” she sits.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, your little mouse. You sent your priestess to free me from my cage …
“I shall come for you.”
Girl whispers the words to herself as she rides a water buffalo home from the steep terraces of the rice fields. Many, many days have passed since the goddess made the promise, but Girl knows she will keep her word.
But how will she come? In a chariot, drawn by white buffaloes? Riding a great golden yak? Or a tiger? Yes, a tiger. And the goddess will let it eat Naala.
Girl has more weals on her back and legs nowadays, as Naala finds any excuse to lash out with her bamboo cane. For Aprakash has gone, and not to his auntie’s. Gone without the golden horn-caps, but Girl is sure he’s taken other things, for Naala has spent hours searching her coffers, sometimes weeping that he’s left her, more often cursing his name.
The village gossips think he’s gone for good. Girl hopes so. The goddess said not to fear his threats, but Girl does fear, and she repeats the goddess’s promise over and over to herself like a holy mantra.
* Winner of the 2020 Story of the Year Award *
It was easier than I thought to teach Albert to run up the grandfather clock on command but much harder to get him to come down again at a decent speed.
“Don’t overthink it,” I coaxed, as the mouse scurried along the split pediment at the top and peered over the edge to the almost straight drop to the floor. “Just run. There will be cheese for you at the end of this.”
The mouse stood up on his haunches and wrinkled his nose, whiskers twitching with dismay. “I don’t care for cheese,” he said. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.”
“And I don’t care for this attitude. When I send you out the window with my message for help, I need to know you’ll be able to get down before any alarms go off. If you’re captured and poisoned, I’ll be trapped, and you’ll be just another dead rodent. I’ve spent months on your training …”
Albert’s cheek pouches bulged with anger. “Is that what I am? Just another pest to kick away once I’ve served my purpose?”
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. I was six years old, no one, nothing, but you found me. Girl was my name …
Girl doesn’t respond, only crawls further into the gap beneath the house, deeper into the shadows. She’s done nothing wrong, but Naala screaming for her like that means a beating.
“This is how I’m repaid for my compassion and benevolence,” cries Naala as villagers gather. “But it certainly shows I lacked wisdom, taking in the orphaned babe, caring for her for five long years. In truth, she’s as wicked as her feckless parents. But I’ll have judgement-giving and justice before the god. As Temple Elder, I demand it.”
Girl doesn’t understand all the words, but some make her tingle inside. Then Aprakash stumbles from the house, half-drunk on rice wine and raksi.
“Why all the shrieking, Mother?” he demands. “What’s the brat done now?”
“Theft! Theft from my own house!”
Beth grinned as her sister Katie spun around their bedroom singing along to Connie Francis. Katie loved singing – she even sounded a little like the icon and had similar looks – and what with her red-and-white halter-neck dress, she was sure to bag a Teddy boy at the dance.
Beth turned back to the mirror and blotted her red lipstick on some tissue paper. Father didn’t like her or Katie wearing lipstick but he was away with work and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Katie asked, lifting the needle from the record and closing the lid. “We’re going to be late.”
“I’m ready.” She got up, took her sister’s arm, and the pair of them hurried from the room yelling good-bye to their mother as the front door closed.
It was a warm evening and children still played out in the street; two boys ran towards them, kicking a football. The girls parted to let the boys pass, then linked arms again as they made their way to the dance hall. As they drew nearer, partygoers milled outside the building and music floated from the open door– an Elvis Presley track.
“Old story, new story…”
Softly, mournfully, Akiowa sang the Storyteller’s call to herself, but the rest died on her lips as she reached the brow of the ridge and gazed down over the land. A sparkling river ran alongside a birch forest, overlooked by a white rock shaped like a wolf howling at the sky. A rock she’d first seen as a babe, when her father had brought her to be blessed by the village totem. A rock which had watched, impassive, as the tribeless men carried her away.
Home. After the long years of slavery and wandering, she was home. She fell to her knees, one trembling hand at her mouth holding back her cry of joy, tears pricking her eyes.
Then joy turned to sorrow; the tears fell. For this was no longer home, since she was no longer Akiowa, young daughter of the tribe’s noblest man, his dwelling hers as long as she lived. She was the Storyteller, an old woman with no family, who would stay only a night or two before leaving.
My second life began not far from where my first ended. I awoke with a noose around my neck, lying flat on the back of a cart beside dozens of corpses. They were bloated, ugly things of various shapes and sizes, not fit to be gazed upon by human eyes. As I stared at them, the stench struck me – a mixture of excrement and rotting pork, which would surely have undone bladder and stomach, were both not already empty. Somehow, I didn’t scream. Perhaps it was the shock of it all. One instant I dangled from a rope, feeling my life ebb away; the next, I was alive again. What occurred between those moments, I couldn’t say, save that remarkably, my neck had healed. I was never a religious man, but such an act defied any explanation I could think of. And the reason was an even greater mystery. Thinking on it, I found I couldn’t even recall why I’d come to wear this noose. Why would anyone execute a mere baker? And what had become of my wife and son? I had to return to them. Yet were I to flee immediately the driver would surely proclaim me a demon or a devil risen to make mischief and I would never see my family again. As my profession often reminded me, patience was everything.
Akiowa sat with her back against a fir, looking out over the vast lake and its islands, occasionally brushing ants from her skirts, wishing she could push her thoughts away so easily. But the ants kept coming back as well, so perhaps there was no difference after all.
The spear had led her to so many villages, stirring so many painful memories of a lush valley – fruit trees, earth lodges, well-tilled fields. Memories of loving parents, a revered rock totem, an unhappy girl walking alone at dead of night. And beyond memory, the haunting vision of grief for a lost child. At each village her sorrow had grown. And guilt. So much guilt.
She’d never told the spear how she’d come to be enslaved, but perhaps it knew, and that was why it had brought her to this place, with its dark firs and thin soil and no people, where there was nothing to recall her reckless, inexcusable folly.
But no. There were people. A bull-boat came into view from behind an island, a woman paddling steadily towards the mainland away to Akiowa’s left.
The spear sent its thrill into her hand. “Must I?” she asked. The thrill came again. With a sigh she got to her feet.
“Welcome, Storyteller,” said the woman, as laughing girls and young children danced around Akiowa. “I am Nadie. Forgive my man for not greeting you, but the menfolk are all out hunting.”
No, not all, for a boy of perhaps twelve years stood watching, a scowl on his face. His left leg was withered, wasted, and he leaned heavily on a stick.
“Siki, come meet the Storyteller,” called Nadie, but the boy turned away. “Take it not ill, Storyteller,” she continued quietly. “Sadly, my son thinks less of himself because of his leg. But come, be welcome at my home while we wait for the men.”
Baskets full of beads stood outside her lodge – stone, shell, coral, bone, turquoise – and after bringing spicebush tea and plum-bread for Akiowa, Nadie took up her work, stitching beads into strings. Another basket held finished necklaces and amulets. As Akiowa was admiring them – they were the finest she’d ever seen – the boy, Siki, appeared before her.
“My father,” he said, “is our greatest hunter.”
“And your mother is a wonderful beadworker. You can be proud of both.”
“And I’m a cripple,” he said defiantly, as if they’d argued over it. “I cannot hunt with him.”
Look at me. For the love of God, please just look at me. I see you walking past: talking, laughing, living. Not one of you ever stops and looks down, down into the river where he left me. Would you even see me? I don’t know, but would it hurt you to look?
It still hurts, which makes no sense. There’s barely anything left of me, except for my bones. There’s still life, crawling, wriggling life that strips me away in slivers. But those things aren’t me. They just live on me. So why does it all still hurt? The wire he wrapped me in cuts into skin and muscle I no longer have. My neck still feels bruised from where he crushed my throat; lungs still burn for air that will never come. And it’s cold. You, up there in the sun, can’t imagine how cold. Colder than the grave. At least sunlight might fall on a grave.
You’re so close; just look down. I’m here. I’m still here! So close to you that I can see the tread of your shoes overhanging the path, can nearly smell that cigarette you just lit. What’s out there that is so damn beautiful that you can’t even spare a moment for the river inches from your toes?