Saturday, August 4, 2012

Little Mother

This is half of a short story that I wrote today. Stay tuned for part II tomorrow.

When she was born she was a strong and healthy infant. So strong and healthy, in fact, that her father didn’t even mind that his first offspring was a girl. He looked the wrinkly red infant over, listened to her crying lustily and smiled tolerantly. The midwife pointed to the red birth mark on her neck and said, “She is marked by the gods. This is great good luck.” Her father said, “We will call her Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck.” He gave the infant back to the midwife and patted his wife on the head. “She is large and vigorous. You will do better next time. Next time it will be a son,” he told her. Then he picked up his bow and quiver of white-fletched arrows and left to go hunting.

Her father was Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow, the greatest hunter in the tribe. He had the strongest arms, he bent the heaviest bow, and he always brought back the biggest deer. His wife was Looks-at-flowers, the most beautiful woman in the tribe. Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow had fought all the other men and beaten them, and claimed Looks-at-flowers as his own. Even now, no one dared mock him, despite the fact that his first child was only a girl.

And sure enough, Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck brought good luck. Before she was five years old she had three little brothers, all strong, healthy boys. Looks-at-flowers was no longer the most beautiful woman in the village, but she was Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow’s favorite wife. Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck was a very happy child. She remained healthy although she did not long stay as fat as she was when she was born. She learned to take care of her little brothers, and she learned to take care of the dolls her mother made for her out of bundles of grass and cloth. Sometimes she played with the other girls in the tribe. They would carry their grass dolls around on their backs, just like their mothers did with their younger siblings, and play at planting gardens or cleaning the cave.

Sometimes the other girls would lose their grass dolls, or break them through carelessness. When they did they would simply take the strings that held them together and find more grass to make new dolls with. Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck would cry. Once she picked up the broken, worn out grass and took it back to the cave to Looks-at-Flowers. Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow thought this was incredibly funny and laughed at her. “It was just a doll, and now it is a bundle of grass. There is much grass out on the plains, one less bundle will make no difference. And you spend too much time playing with dolls. You are old enough to work.” He laughed his deep, manly laugh, and her brothers laughed their high-pitched, boyish laughs. Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck did not burn the bundle of grass. Instead she had a funeral for it, and raised a little stone mound over it as the elders had done for grandma.

Her father did not forget this incident. When she was five years old, Little-Mother-who-brings-good-luck lost her baby name and received her child name. The name she was given was Little-Mother-of-broken-things.

When she was ten years old, Little-Mother-of-broken-things was not such a good luck charm anymore. Looks-at-flowers had lost three infants in childbirth, and was now the least favorite wife of Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow. Looks-at-flowers hardly spoke to anyone, and was no longer allowed her turn to share her husband’s bed. She was the cook, cleaner and mender for the whole family. From sunrise to sunset she worked in silence. Only Little-Mother-of-broken-things helped her. Every day they worked together in the fields, but even to her daughter, Looks-at-Flowers would not speak. Little-Mother-of-broken-things had no time to play with dolls anymore. She could only kiss them in the morning, and then again in the evening before she fell asleep.  In this way she turned thirteen and became a woman, but because no one spoke to her, no one knew or cared.

There was a little boy in the tribe who was an idiot. His father had been very pleased when he saw him as an infant, for it was a large baby with a beautiful face that smiled and squinted at everyone around him. He had been named, Beautiful-child-with-sun-on-his-face. But by the time he was three years old it became clear that he was an idiot. He did not speak properly, he could not understand anyone, and he was always knocking things over. He would burst into a terrible rage for no reason, screaming and crying with all his might and trying to hit anyone who came near him. When he became five years old his father named him Knows-nothing.

One day, when Little-Mother-of-broken-things was thirteen there was a council of elders. They came together around a fire in the center of the meeting cave to discuss what must be done with Knows-nothing. The boy was now seven years old and had become too much for his parents to handle. No matter how much his father beat him or threatened him he still could not learn anything and was only becoming more and more disruptive. That day he had fallen into the fire and burned himself, and then later had pushed his young sister into the fire and she was burned as well. His father had long since wanted to take the boy out onto the plains and leave him there for the gods to deal with, but his mother wouldn’t allow it. Now even his mother no longer wanted to keep him. She sat in the shadows with her burned baby daughter, crying, and refused to answer when the elders put the question to her. So her husband answered for her, “Let the boy be given to the gods for them to work their will. Let them destroy the evil spirits in him.”

The elders nodded gravely. “Is there anyone in the tribe who wishes otherwise?” they asked.

There was silence. Only the crackling of the fire and the happy, incoherent babbling of Knows-nothing from the corner where he sat. No one spoke. No one looked at anyone else. They all knew that sometimes the evil spirits took over a child and then there was nothing to do but leave him to the gods.

“I will take him.”

There was a start in the whole crowd as everyone looked around for the still, small voice that had spoken.

“Speak again,” the oldest of the elder’s commanded.

Little-Mother-of-broken-things stood forward, trembling in the shadow of so many eyes. “I will take care of him. I promise that he will not trouble anyone again.”

Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow stood forward and seized her by the hair to drag her away but the oldest of the elders raised his hand and told him to be still. “Child, your name suits you well. Wise was the man who named you for truly he saw into your heart. But it is against our laws for a child to adopt another child. You have not been given your woman name yet, and so you cannot adopt this boy.”

“But I am a woman, sir.” Little-Mother-of-broken things spoke timidly but clearly. “I had my flow of blood three moons ago.”

The midwife looked at Looks-at-flowers. “Is this true?”

Looks-at-flowers did not respond. She glanced like a trapped animal from her daughter’s imploring face to her husband’s glowering one. She nodded and looked away.

Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow roared with anger. “Why did you not tell me about this, woman? My own daughter becomes a woman and I must find this out in front of the entire tribe?”

The oldest of the elders again raised his hand for silence. “If this is true, then you must be given a woman name. Then, by the laws of the tribe you may adopt this boy if you wish. Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow, if you do not think that it is true, then you may postpone the decision for one moon. You must personally verify that she has not had her flow of blood. If she is lying then you may punish her as you wish. If she is not then you must give her a woman name.”

Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow was livid with rage. He had not let go of his daughter’s hair and tears of pain ran down her face as he gripped harder and harder and his hand shook in his anger. “Do you expect me to deal with women’s filthiness? Let her have a woman name for all I care, but this idiot boy shall never come into my cave. She will not adopt him.”

The midwife stood, slowly, stiff with age, leaning on her staff and stared at the two with her filmy eyes. “You, child. I remember you. You were marked by the gods when you were born. Beware how you thwart her, Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow. You may be a great warrior, but even you cannot resist the gods.”

The oldest of the elders spoke his final decision. “This is the way of our tribe. She has become a woman and so must be given her woman name. Since she is a woman and no longer a child she may now marry, and she may now adopt.”

“I will not have that idiot in my cave,” her father shouted. “I tell you I will wring his fat neck with my own hands, as you should have done from the start!” He pointed to Knows-nothing’s father.

“How was I to know the boy would be taken by evil spirits?” the other man leapt to his feet in anger.

“It was your diseased seed that spawned him. It is your fault. He is nothing but a burden to our tribe.”

The son of one of the elders blew a loud, shrill blast on his whistle. The oldest of the elders stood. “Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow, I said that she may adopt by our laws. I did not say that you must adopt the boy. She is now a woman. You no longer have any responsibility for her. She may marry or adopt as she pleases, but she may live in your cave only as you please.”

It took a few minutes for this to sink in. When Shoots-three-birds-with-one-arrow finally understood he released his daughter’s hair and let her fall to the ground. “If she chooses to adopt this rat she will never enter my cave again. As for her name, let her be called Mother-of-the-idiot.”

The midwife hobbled over to where Mother-of-the-idiot lay sobbing in the dirt. “Do you hear your father’s decision? What do you choose?”

Mother-of-the-idiot lay silent and shaking for several long, long heartbeats. Even Knows-nothing had fallen silent, frightened and confused by the yelling around him. All eyes watched, silent, impassive, unsupporting. Mother-of-the-idiot slowly raised her face out of the ash and dust of the council circle and looked around. She was alone.

“I will adopt him,” she said to the crowd of men and women and children, staring silently at her.

“Then you will not live in my cave.” Her father shoved her head back down as he turned and walked away. She did not fall, this time, but stayed half sitting, half-lying in the dirt, watching as her father collected his wives and other children and dragged them out into the darkness.

“It is very difficult for a woman to live alone, Mother-of-the-idiot,” one of the elders said. “Our midwife does it because she has a trade. All the men in the village provide for her in return for her service in bringing sons into the world. Without a husband or a trade you will not survive for long.”

The oldest of the elders raised his voice. “Who will marry this woman?”

There was no answer. Some of the families drew their sons back out of sight as if afraid she might suddenly seize them. The elder asked again, “Is there any man in this village who wishes this woman as his wife? She is unmarried and free to any who wish.”

Still there was no answer, but only subdued muttering. The midwife laughed a cackling laugh. “They will not marry her so long as she has adopted that idiot boy. No man wants such a son.”

The elder spoke to Mother-of-the-idiot. “There is still time to change your mind. We will not consider the adoption final until this council fire has grown cold. After that you will be responsible for the boy until he reaches manhood and kills his first deer. But until then you may change your mind and either return to your father or we will find you a husband. This council is closed.” He slowly walked away, leaning on his staff. The other elders followed him. The rest of the tribe drifted away to their own caves. Last to go was the elder’s son, the one who had blown the whistle, and then only Mother-of-the-idiot, Knows-nothing and the midwife were left.

“I have lived alone these many winters, little one.” The midwife spoke softly, as if to herself. “I have had no husband since I left my father’s cave. I brought your father and your mother into the world. I brought you into the world. I brought this boy into the world. I can tell you only about hunger, hard work and loneliness. May the gods watch over you. I certainly cannot.” And she hobbled away.

Mother-of-the-idiot was left alone with her son.

To be Continued...

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