I knelt with my bucket and set about the task of watering each wilted seedling by hand. This was a wasteful task, at best. This year's harvest would be worse than the last, if there was a harvest at all. And we needed every drop of water.
Desperate hope kept us going anyway.
My mind raced circles around alternatives and I could think of none that would be of benefit. The hinterland desert grew each year, not by inches, but by feet. The sand bleached whiter over time for lack of moisture. Water-hungry insects clung to the undersides of the seedling's leaves desperate to leech any bit of moisture they could. The insects were desperate. No different than us.
I heard Sule before I saw him. My name floated to me on a gust of dry wind. He always called to me within sight of our settlement as a way to announce his arrival, and love. I caught sight of him, his long angular shape an upright dagger against the swirl of red dust that whipped about him. Gone since the previous night, he returned from the hunt followed by Isa and our fur and bones dog, Flea.
My heart squeezed in my chest, just as it did the first time I saw him, a sweet dull ache I wished I didn't feel. Love has a way of obscuring truth and good sense.
"I hope they were successful." Neenah, my apprentice and friend, squatted a few feet away on the next row. She poured the last drops of water over a seedling. "I’m tired of eating dust and spit for every meal."
“They cannot conjure what this cursed desert does not contain."
"I know someone who can," she said, dropping her voice so that I could barely hear her.
"Do you really believe that?" I said looking over my shoulder at her.
Neenah stood and licked the last traces of water from her fingers. "Had you asked me this even a week ago, I would have said no, but hunger and thirst have a way of rearranging a situation in one’s brain."
"Better to call on Allah."
Neenah sucked her teeth, a sharp derisive sound. "That hasn’t stopped you from associating with her."
I shrugged. "The risks of exiling me do not outweigh the benefits, yet, if there are any."
"Aren’t you afraid of that witch?"
"No more than I am afraid of dying of hunger.”
Neenah wasn’t the only person desperate for fresh food. I glanced back again. Sule was almost to the gates of our settlement. His hands were empty and the pack on his left hip looked flat.
When Sule first arrived eight years ago, shoulders perfect right angles, he carried a seed-laden pack. He had enough seed to grow, enough to trade and sell. Much has changed since then. The land is no longer receptive to our ministrations. And Sule’s shoulders aren’t so perfect, less proud angles than curved defeat.
I handed my bucket to Neenah and headed back to the pod cabin I shared with Sule.
I was about to start the evening meal when he ducked through the door smelling of sun and sweat and sand.
"Peace." His smile was weary.
"And to you," I said over my shoulder as I reached into the lower pantry. "I’ve got a bit of rabbit jerky and a few wild yams. How does stew sound?”
“Sounds good,” he said with a half-smile on his face. He reached into his pack. “Maybe you can use this. Found some wild garlic.”
“This is exactly what I need to make it perfect,” I told him. I took his face in my hands, kissed his mouth, the dusty sun-cured lines of his forehead, his chin, the valleys of his cheeks.
It wasn’t his fault that meat was scarce. Everything was scarce. The sky was stingy with her rain. The rivers were less robust than a stream of tears. Lake Bounty, where we used to fish, was now a muddy crater.
Even accepting, Sule still went out on fruitless hunts to buoy the morale of our settlement. And in the darkest part of the night, when he thought none but Allah could hear him, he begged for our relief. In the stillness I would watch his silhouette prostrate and rise in the shadows. Though my faith that Allah heard my prayers had faltered, my faith that He would hear Sule’s never waned.
Sule sat and filled a cup with water from a pitcher on the table, then poured half of it back.
“Almost ran into a catcher caravan last night." Sule finished his water and placed the cup on the table. "Camped not far from us.”
“You must be careful,” I said glancing back at him. “They would like nothing better than to find two strong men alone without the strength of their settlement to protect them.”
Sule nodded. “Isa wanted to sneak up on them in the night and …"
"Please tell me you didn't let him do that."
Catchers were a plague to the hinterlands. If they caught you, you'd pray it was only your organs they wanted.
Sule waved off the suggestion. "I have no love for the catchers, but I’m not about to let him get us both killed."
Sule grunted as he tugged off his boots, shaking loose a gray veil of sand.
"I should make you undress outside," I said smiling.
"Where the entire settlement can see me?" He dropped the second boot then crossed our tiny kitchen to where I stood chopping the yams. Sule slipped in behind me, his arms around my waist, his palms against the slight curve of my belly. I loved the warmth and stink of him. He kissed my neck before pulling away.
"Look what I found at the crossroads." He pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket and handed it to me.
The neon filaments still had some juice and gave off a faint bluish glow against the yellow paper, making the fine print easier to read. It was an appeal from the great metros for the immigration of hinterland dwellers.
I thought of the metro of my birth, Ajutine, with its glittering glass spires, the urbane architecture of old Haq University, the museums, the corner bodegas and tea shops. My life there had been good.
"We were never good enough for them before, treating our belief like a plague. Now they want us?"
I shrugged, handed the flyer back to Sule, and turned back to the yams I’d been chopping.
"Ajutine needs people," I said.
The Creed War had done more than devastate the landscape of our once-thriving country. It had made enemies of friends and families. Proselytes and their sympathizers were cast to the desert to eke out an existence the best way they could, which was damned near impossible. Two generations of scholars and scientists were lost, even before the declining birth rate.
"It says here that they’re looking for healthy individuals … educated parties … people who have valuable skills." I felt his gaze, warm pressure on the back of my head. "Only two requisites. No convicts, and qualified parties must take the Creed Oath."
"Ah, they want so much," I said, thinking of my mother. After the Creed War, she swallowed her faith, but was unwilling to renounce it. She was equally unwilling to renounce her home. "Some people are willing to trade their faith for electricity and running water," I said.
Sule settled in behind me again. "Would you? Is there anything that would ever make you go back to that Ajutine?" he murmured into my hair.
"Allah never promised comfort to the worthy, just the afterlife."
My dream propelled me from sleep. My heart hammered in my chest and my face was slick with sweat. Sule’s arms were twined around me, reminding me of the solidity of this world, of its goodness.
Since this pregnancy, my dreams had become more frequent, beautiful yet frightening. I saw always a son, willful and hale, unlike the other sons and daughters who had spoiled in my womb.
I slid from beneath Sule and made ablutions. Then I went to stand on the masala facing east, hoping salat would shed the anxiety of my dreams. When I finished, I remained on the masala, fingering the tasbeh Sule had strung for me from pearls he’d scavenged from one of the old metros.
Just before dawn lightened the horizon I heard the crackling static of the receiver on my old radio.
“This is Bilqis. What is the emergency?”
It was Manuel from settlement #54. “Doctor, please come as quickly as you can. Something is wrong with Soraya.”
I left in the pale orange light of the new morning. My jeep jostled in the ruts and potholes of crumbling asphalt. I drove thirty miles north to settlement #54. The gate was marked by a six-meter-tall crucifix fashioned from salvaged steel beams, the Jesus of wire and scrap metal.
A tall lean woman opened the gate and I drove through. She greeted me with a nod, although her eyes snagged on the tasbeh dangling from my jeep’s rear view mirror and then on the scarf that bound my hair.
My status as a physician afforded me safe passage into almost any settlement regardless of how I worshipped. Out here, pragmatism erased old grudges about the Creed War. And my competence made it easier for many to accept that my knowledge was supplemented with a touch of the ether.
Manuel, Soraya's man, met me outside of the cabin they shared. "I’m glad you made it.” He grabbed my bag from the passenger seat.
"What's wrong," I asked, already listing the possible pregnancy-related complications and solutions in my head. In all the years I'd been living in the hinterlands I'd seen fewer than twenty children born healthy. I'd delivered them all, and the sick ones as well. That has been my lot, my imperfect penance, although there is no way to atone for causing the near extinction of one’s own people.
At twenty-seven years old, Soraya had given birth to five children, all healthy and strong, and she was pregnant yet again. She was much revered by the people of her settlement and those of the hinterlands. Soraya was believed by all to be exceptionally blessed.
Soraya's eldest burst out of the door followed by four stair-step siblings, all girls, each as different and lovely as their fathers had been. They crowded around me, arms locked around my waist and thighs.
"My mama is crying. She has blood too," said Bilqis. She was my namesake, in honor of doctoring Soraya through her first frightened pregnancy.
"Don't you worry. That's why I've come." I shooed all but my namesake back inside. "Bring fresh water so I can wash my hands, okay?" The girl nodded, jet curls bouncing around her shoulders.
Soraya lay sprawled on her narrow bed, covers thrown off and hanging halfway onto the floor. Her wide face was oily with sweat, and her eyes puffy and red-rimmed. She managed a smile and a breathy greeting, “Thank God you made it. I prayed you would come.” She reached out a hand for me and I took it in mine. Manuel stood back and watched in silence.
I gave Soraya a cursory assessment. Her amber cheeks were flushed. Her belly was a perfect mound beneath the faded yellow of her gown. Her legs and feet were swollen and the skin around her ankles had begun to fissure.
"Tell me what ails you." I sat on the stool next to her bed.
"I saw blood this morning when I went to the bathroom."
"Any pain?" I said.
"No." She shifted slightly. "Except my ankles."
Little Bilqis returned carrying a large bowl of water.
"How much blood?" I said as I pressed my fingers into the tender flesh of her edematous ankles.
Soraya shrugged. "Just a little. But my stomach has been sour. I cannot keep my meals down."
"Odd this far along in your pregnancy. This one is almost cooked," I said, laying the back of my hand across her brow.
Soraya fingered a silver crucifix around her neck. "I have asked His mercy, but I can’t help being afraid."
I checked her blood pressure and pulse, pinched the tender skin above her collarbone to check for dehydration. Her breaths came a little quickly but I attributed this to her obvious distress and her burden.
I washed my hands in the bowl and lifted her gown, exposing her thighs and belly. I lay my palms on her taut brown belly and closed my eyes. What I did next, I learned at the feet of an exiled woman.
I visualized my energy, a yellow vibrating ball of light. I tugged it, channeling it from my toes straight through my center until I felt a line like hot electricity run through me. I sent it arching around Soraya's belly, around the child cradled in those precious waters.
I felt the child, her warmth, her peace, her health. I couldn't see much more than her outline, a dark silhouette against the red of Soraya’s womb. This was enough to assure me that her sixth daughter was well.
My energy surged a bit and Soraya shifted beneath my hands and let out a breathy moan. I pulled back until the pained creases on her brow smoothed again.
"What do you see?" she panted. "Is my baby okay?"
I nodded as I passed my splayed fingers across the wide expanse of her belly and down toward her groin. There was the problem. A dark throbbing that sat low and hot in her uterus. It bled in scant trickles.
Perhaps an abruption? I was uncertain as Soraya did not present with all the usual symptoms and I had not yet learned to trust the ether as well as I trusted my science.
"I can tell by your face," she said, her voice rising in panic. "Tell me what it is."
I moved my hands up higher, pressing with my fingers until I was able to palpate the curve of her daughter's rump, the soft line of her back, her sweet head. I searched for her heartbeat, listened for the quick sharp rhythm. I found it, strong, so strong.
As I shifted my hands I heard another heartbeat, a strident rhythm, not quite as loud but just as insistent. This one belonged to my child, I knew right away. The hope that would likely never come to fruition. Then the roar of my own heartbeat, galloping even as I attempted to push back my own pain and fear, drowned out the rest. I pulled away.
"Your baby is strong," I said.
I nodded and turned my face into the shadows so she wouldn’t see the pain and fear etched on my face, or the tears. I’d been pregnant as many times as Soraya and not one child had lived. I wiped my eyes with the back of my sleeve and grabbed my bag.
But who was I to complain? I’d created this.
Manuel followed me to my jeep.
"Soraya needs bedrest," I said. "I don’t want her to get up for more than the bathroom for the next week."
Manuel nodded. "What is it? What do you think is wrong?"
The dawn chill had already burned away. To the east, I could see the broken spires of Oberon, like needles stabbing at the sky. No longer a great metro, Oberon is now just the bare bones of its memory. I'd been there before on a scavenge run. So much of its treasures still lay untouched. People were afraid to go to Oberon. Rumor was that a catcher hideout was located near the city.
"I’m not quite willing to commit to a diagnosis yet, Manuel.” I spread my arms out in front of me. “My resources are as dry as this desert. I’m so ill-equipped.”
"But you're a doctor. The best we’ve got.”
I wondered if this was how Sule felt, desperate to provide for our settlement, for me, yet being helpless to do so. Manuel was asking more than I was capable of, but if I was in his place, or Soraya's, I'd do anything to see this child born into the light. I'd make any concession to give this child the best world.
"I’ll see what I can do."
I stood on Miriama’s porch, her old cabin little more than a lean-to, and stared west along the unobstructed sun-cured plains in the direction of settlement #8, my home.
The first time I saw Sule, he’d walked out of a dust storm to the gates of our settlement. He had been wandering the hinterlands alone after his release from the Vymar labor camp. We never asked his crime. When so many are unjustly imprisoned and cast to the desert for crimes no more significant than belief, his crimes could hardly matter.
I found him of great interest. He had navigated the hinterlands for months without becoming prey to hunger or catchers. They would have robbed him of the small wealth in seeds he carried in his pack, just as quickly as they would have robbed him of his life.
I was quick to welcome Sule into our settlement, despite the dissent of the others. I sensed goodness in him. The ether veil about him shimmered like starlight. Miriama had taught me how to read people, to suss their surface intentions. This is why she’d always welcomed me into her home, though it was my people who had first exiled her.
I unlaced my boots and lined them up by the door and entered without knocking. She would be waiting for me, would’ve known that I was coming even before I’d made up my mind to do so.
The remnants of a fire smoldered in the hearth. A few candles placed intermittently around the room offered just enough light to cast long shadows along the walls and ceiling. The air was heavy with a mix of sharp spicy scents from the herbs hung to dry from the rafters and along the walls.
Her baritone voice rose out of the darkness before my eyes adjusted to the gloom of the windowless cabin.
"Bilqis, my beloved. This not your usual day," she said.
"No, it isn’t."
I visited Miriama on Monday mornings to learn the special prayers and the adab of devotion, lessons I would have learned sub rosa as a youth in Ajutine had I conceded to my mother’s wishes and been disobedient of the Creed Laws.
There was a certain irony in the fact that a witch was the keeper of a faith that outlawed the use of sorcery, but most of our imams have been imprisoned, have been frightened into silence and obscurity, or are just plain dead.
"I've come to replenish my supply of herbs. I need more brehsome root and more of your ginger tea."
"The brehsome will help my people forget their hunger." I stepped further into the cabin.
"I know this. Taught you, remember?"
She sighed, "You never come just to visit."
Miriama knew why I did not visit more often. I never spoke to Sule of my visits here, though he knew as well as others. Even Miriama’s long years aren’t enough to inspire the sympathy she truly deserves from her detractors. Where people were willing, in such times, to forgive her use of magic, they could not surpass their fear that she had once taken as many lives using it as she preserved. As long as I was careful, they pretended not to notice I was allied with her. As long as I did good.
Miriama waved me over. “Grab that pouch there on the hearth,” she said. The leather was worn and soft. I made to give it to her, but she shook her head and urged me to sit on the floor at her feet.
“That is for you, little sister. Brehsome, ginger tea, and some hrery powder for your man."
I looked up into her face, not shocked that she'd had the supplies already prepared, but I didn't quite understand. "Hrery powder?"
She nodded. "It will calm him. Also I packed some of those good pain pills. You are going to need those."
I had learned never to ask her how she knew these things. The strangeness of knowing impressed a sour disquiet into my very spirit.
“I’ve been to see Soraya today.”
“That one is a miracle, considering what plagues us.”
“Yes,” was all I could manage around a throat full of guilt.
Miriama held me beneath her gaze, pressing her will against mine. I lowered my head, reached for her tough brown hand, and kissed it. Before I pulled away Miriama cupped my chin in her hand and coaxed my face into a patch of candlelight. I felt the tendrils of her consciousness lap at me and then slide away.
"You well, little sister?"
"Quite," I said without meeting her gaze. I felt a pinprick sensation, like biting ants, down my spine. Miriama probed me with her will, more persistently this time, and as she'd taught me, I imagined a wall and erected a barrier against her.
Miriama smiled. "How be your dreams these days?"
"Full of a future I'm afraid to believe in."
Miriama nodded. "Is that good or bad?"
"I don't know."
His face flashed in my mind, the son I felt wax and wane in the ocean of my belly. My dreams had been of him in the future, sand-colored and rangy like his father, taciturn and driven by an anger much like mine. I clenched my jaw and swallowed the fear and sorrow these dreams stirred.
Miriama released my chin, then ran her calloused fingers along the line of my cheek and forehead. I could never really keep her out of my head if she made up her mind to be in it.
"You’re different," she said frowning. "Like something in you is burning." She sighed and sat back in her chair. "What do you hold in your belly, on your mind? What really brings you to me?"
I shook my head. "Just the herbs, Miriama."
Her laughter was like a building quake. "Since when do you lie, little sister? Do you not trust me?"
"I do," I said dropping my chin again.
It was difficult to conceal truths from this woman. Even the truths one has yet to uncover are laid bare before her. When I first came to her, she warned me, "Do not come to me if you wish that I not see you." And I had accepted this, but how could I explain that I’d pinned my hopes on a dream child?
"Something happened today, when I reached for Soraya’s baby."
Miriama leaned forward, her eyes as keen as lights in the gloom. "Like what?"
I looked down at my hands, turning them over, and then stretched them out for her to see. "I heard the heartbeat of my child as I probed for the heartbeat of hers." I looked up into her narrowed eyes.
"Remember what I taught you? If you are not certain about your intentions and desires, you cannot expect the ether to be.”
I said nothing to this because she was right. Thoughts of my own child were always just below the surface.
"Have faith, little sister,” she said as if she’d plucked the thought from my head. “Maybe not all of your fruit are broken."
"The life out here in the hinterlands is not fit for the good fruit."
Miriama fumbled with the tall water pipe next to her chair. She nodded for me to retrieve an ember from the fire while she added sweet-smelling herb.
Finally she shrugged saying only, "There’s no reason the good fruit must stay put. This a wide world."
"That’s what scares me." I rose to leave.
"Remember, little sister, that the ether is merely a tool.” Miriama grabbed my hand and pressed it against her cheek. "It is not more or less powerful than your science. If you want to do the best thing for that girl and yourself, you use all the tools you can find."
Just then I felt the flutter of bird’s wings in my belly.
When I returned home I found Sule sprawled across our bed. A shaft of cold moonlight set his brown face aglow. He snored lightly with his face against my pillow. His feet hung over the end of our bed.
His legs had always been too long for our bed, our chairs, the door frames, the entire throwaway prefabricated pod home that was never intended to be in use for so long.
Before Sule, I had been comfortable in my solitude, I had thought, until the night he met me at the door of my quarters. I'd come home from hunting and found Sule standing in the shadows awaiting my arrival. As tradition demanded he came chaperoned by the traveling Imam.
Of course I accepted him.
I slid onto the bed next to him. Eyes still closed, Sule shifted to face me. He brought up a hand to the nape of my neck and untied the small knot. When the filmy fabric fell away, he tangled his fingers in my hive of hair.
"Like a volcanic sunset," he whispered of my henna-dyed hair, before pulling me against his chest.
I clung to him, and accepted a sleep sweet kiss from him that made me almost forget everything else.
"You’ll never leave me?" he asked through a sleep haze, oddly, as if he sensed finality in my caresses.
I knew I never wanted to. When I took too long to answer, his eyes fluttered open, half-lidded glistening pools. I found myself lost in them.
"No. Never," I breathed against his mouth.
Read part 2 here!