Allaynah’s eyes eased open slowly. It took her a few moments to remember where she was and why so much of her body was stiff with pain and cold; but when the realisation that she must have fallen asleep during the night floated into her awareness and what little reserve of adrenaline she had left was released into her blood stream. She threw her arms out as though anticipating an imminent attack at that moment. However, she ended up instead getting tangled up with Rosha who had been sitting beside her attempting to coax a feeble spark into a flame. Rosha explained that she had woken up and found Allaynah fast asleep and didn’t want to bother her as she needed some sleep too.
Allaynah untangled herself, and sat cross legged looking around her dumbfounded. It was a regular cool late Spring morning, the birds and animals were silent, and there was little activity in the camp around her beyond Rosha and about a dozen other women trying to start fires without enough kindling to keep a fire going. Obviously, none of the women were confident enough to ask the Bellamani women for an ember from one of their fires, nor for some proper firewood.
There were a hundred or so Paximani women huddling together after enduring the cold night out in the open and were obviously similarly cold and stiff as she was. There was no sign of her sister Printara anywhere. She looked at Rosha who was gently uncovering something from underneath from her meagre pile of kindling. With delight she realised Rosha had a plate of bark with two fistfuls of berries and a mushroom on it. Before she even thought to ask where the berries had come from Allaynah devoured the mushroom whole without washing it and gorged on the berries devouring even the empty skins of the berries that had burst during their picking. The meal was small but it lessened her intense hunger pains enough for her to find the space to think clearly again.
“Where did these come from?” she asked her cousin.
Rosha explained that at dawn the Bellamani had taken a group of about fifty Paximani women out to do some gathering. When those women had returned they took half the food they had collected and then sent them down to the river to get a drink, while another fifty Bellamani women had left to do more foraging.
“Apparently,” continued Rosha, “there’s a farming village not far from here. It is full of dead Paximani men who were attacked over a week ago. Most of the crops aren’t ready to pick yet of course, but a few were and they had plenty of food stored there. Unfortunately, all the animals have been slaughtered by the Bellamani, every last pig, goat, and sheep. Yet, if we’re allowed to go and tend the crops and mend the fences then we shouldn’t starve…” Rosha trailed off looking sad. Allaynah guessed that Rosha was thinking about her imminent death sentence. As it turned out, Rosha wasn’t allowed to leave the camp to join a foraging party on the Matriarch’s instructions.
“Any sign of the painted woman?”
Rosha shook her head.
“Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time left, I am sure she will be back soon.”
Rosha nodded sadly, and Allaynah turned her focus to look around at the remainder of her tribe still in the camp. Printara had obviously gone out with one of the foraging parties. Probably trying to garner approval from the Bellamani women in the hope of being married off to one of their warriors. It seemed so strange that her sister was this willing to bond with the other tribe just days after they had murdered their brother, cousins, and uncles. The idea of marrying a man who might have skewered one of her boy cousins with his obsidian spear turned her stomach, let there seemed to be a significant number of women from her tribe who were willing to accept, forgive, and merge with this new tribe. In cold rational terms, it made sense, that was the best way to survive. With the men of the new tribe, they could have new children to replace the children the Bellamani had murdered. Although, they wouldn’t look like Paximani children, because they wouldn’t be Paximani, they would be Bellamani.
Not far away from her she noticed some of the women were paying special attention to a few women in particular; giving them extra warmth, food, and attention. With curiosity, she counted about half a dozen obviously pregnant women. Surely with all this going one most of those pregnancies would fail she concluded, however, she wondered what might happen if some of those women did give birth? Those might be the last Paximani children ever to be born again? Also… what if some of those children were boys? Would the Bellamani allow those boys to live? They had been so clear and systematic in hunting down every last boy. Even the boy toddlers they brutally cleaved to pieces; while in several instances she had seen girl toddlers spared the blade; although carried off by the Bellamani men for purposes she couldn’t understand. Optimistically she assumed the very young Paximani girls were in another camp with other Bellamani women being raised in the customs and language of the Bellamani. Perhaps one day they might be rescued?
If they wanted to be rescued.
She asked Rosha if she had heard any news about their shelter. Rosha explained that she had overheard a conversation from the guards about how they were going to leave us out in the open to harden us up because we’re so weak. Something about a few deaths with scare the fragility out of us. Allaynah looked back towards the pregnant women and concluded if the babies hadn’t died yet within their wombs it would only be a matter of another night or two of cold before this came to be. Rubbing her temples and closing her eyes Allaynah assumed a stance of intense concentration that aroused the curiosity of not only Rosha but a few other women nearby. They pressed her to explain what she was thinking so hard about.
“I’m trying to remember how our men used to make our huts,” she explained.
Triani giggled, “That’s easy, they piled up stones in a ring then put logs and branches on them.”
Allaynah shook her head, “No. It wasn’t that simple, I remember my father when he was building his new home after my mother drove him out. He was digging for a whole day before he laid a single stone. I was young at the time, but I think I remember what he said. He said that a trench needed to be dug to put in foundations and for drainage.”
Triani looked at her blankly, “What are foundations for? What is drainage?”
“Foundations are for making sure the house stays up in the wind, and drainage makes sure the house doesn’t wash away in the rain,” Allaynah’s face lit up with a smile, “I remember my father telling me that when I was just a little girl! I watched him for the whole two weeks it took him to build that hut of his. My mother hated me doing it, but I remember being fascinated watching him work and how much thought he put into everything he did.”
As the women pressed her with more questions, so more memories of watching her father building his new home came flooding back to her. Wooden supports along the inside wall, but none on the outside because they would rot from the dampness. Fire place in the middle of the house so the smoke would rise up the funnel in the middle of the ceiling. Beds along from the walls so the fire wouldn’t poison us while we slept, and so on. Quotes and memories tumbled back into Allaynah’s consciousness as though a door had been opened and a flood of knowledge was washing through her mind. The other women were transfixed with all her explanations for why their huts had been built a particular way. Each time Allaynah remembered a detail like how tightly the sticks had be to be tied together to make them water proof the women commented how they had no idea that that’s why the men did it that way. While at first pleased to be so informative to these other women, Allaynah couldn’t help but start to wonder if any of these women had ever been curious about anything the men did during their whole lives. It was almost as though to these women they had never actually met any of the men from their tribe. They had always been there, just living beside them, working beside them, just doing their thing as though their lives, interests, and activities were of no importance or connection to the women and their lives and toils.
The foraging parties had returned during her discussion with the other women and it was time for another group of fifty Paximani women to go out foraging. Allaynah enthusiastically volunteered and told all the women in the group going with her to collect at least one item needed to build a hut: wooden stakes, digging tools, stones, balls of coarse twine, and buddles of sticks. When they arrived at the nearby farm village, much of the food had already been gathered but there was plenty of building materials scattered about the village, including a stockpile of stones and stakes. Allaynah and a few other women would often start weeping when they found a badly decomposed body of one their men, most of the women were simply focussed on finding the few almost ripe berries, tubers, and other items of food ready to eat. The beans and other foods wouldn’t be ripe to collect for another couple of weeks. Much mushrooms and cheese were always maturing for eating. Although, some crops had been devoured by rabbits who had gotten through sections of poorly maintained fences.
Initially some of the women objected to Allaynah’s instruction that they should collect building supplies, being afraid the Bellamani would punish them. However, most of the women were excited to hear they were building a hut and might have some shelter tonight. The majority was on Allaynah’s side this time and the dissenters’ resistance to the plan crumbled under their collective insistence. When they returned to the camp to deliver the food to the Bellamani there was some commotion about the building supplies. This brought the Matriarch out to ask what was going on. Allaynah explained honestly that she wanted to build a hut for the Paximani to sleep in because they didn’t have tents.
When the Matriarch explained to her guards why they were carrying building materials the Bellamani women started laughing. Upon hearing this laughter most of the Paximani women threw their building materials to the ground assuming that they were about to be taken off them. But instead the Matriarch told them to pick up their materials so that they could build this hut, and she would insist that they build it so long as they only worked on it while she herself was watching them. Astonished the Paximani women dutifully picked up their discarded building materials and took them back to the rest of their tribe along with the next ration of food.
By this time it was midday, and Allaynah had noticed that there was a change in the wind. It was no longer still, but gusting and there was a faint smell of rain on it. There would be a storm tonight; she concluded. They needed to build shelter and they needed to build it quickly otherwise some Paximani women would not survive the night; certainly none of the pregnant women. A stockpile of building materials was set up in the area where the Paximani women were gathered and the women who hadn’t been there earlier to hear Allaynah describe how to build a hut were fascinated by the collection of materials. Allaynah gave instructions to the outgoing party of Paximani foragers to each gather the stones, sticks, and logs they still needed to build a hut. Allaynah set about looking for a good place to start building the hut. While she was doing this Printara stalked her.
“What are you doing sister? Trying to get us all killed when it collapses on top of us in our sleep? You don’t know the first thing about building a hut. You’re lying to these women. Giving them false hope.”
Allaynah looked into her sister’s eyes, choking on the hurt too much to speak. Printara avoided her gaze and cried out to the surrounding women, “See! Her silence confirms her incompetence. Follow this weasel and you will die in her contraption. We don’t need her stupid contraption to survive the night, we need to be strong and just do whatever the Bellamani tell us to do. If we’re obedient and helpful to them, they will give us tents, but first we must prove to them that we are completely submissive to them so that they will trust us.”
Allaynah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She tried to speak but nothing came out, tears started to choke her up. The words, “rain… tonight… the pregnant ones…” croaked out but she couldn’t put a sentence together she was so distressed. Printara continued working up the crowd encouraging them to turn their backs on Allaynah. Just as Allaynah had had the majority on her side entering into the farm village, Printara now had the majority on her side and Allaynah could only observe as a wave of consensus was starting to break over the group and some women who had helped support her cause originally started to quietly slip away. If perhaps the other fifty women who had come to the village had stayed instead of going to the river to get some water there might have been more numbers in her favour but now it looked dire. Now it looked like Printara’s skilful reading of the group, her timing, and now her rhetoric of total submission to the invaders was going to stop Allaynah from building her hut that day.
Worse still, Allaynah could hear a voice in her head telling her she was wrong, and she shouldn’t trust herself, she should just go along with the majority. That it was dangerous for her not to. Feeling the fight ebbing out of her she slipped down her knees in the dirt overwhelmed by the voices shouting at her. In a desperate attempt to block the hysterical babbling she covered her hands over her ears and shut her eyes. She focussed on her breathing, drawing in deep sleep lung fulls of air until she felt her pulse slow down. Now if only there would be some silence so she could think.
A voice rang out.
“Too bad you weren’t so obedient and helpful for our men when they needed it.”
With those words there was silence.
Allaynah opened her eyes and looked about her. Every pair of Paximani eyes were on her staring in disbelief. It took Allaynah another moment to realise they were staring at her because she had been the one to say those words.
Printara broke the silence by snapping at her sister, “What did you say?”
Allaynah had no idea where her strength had come from but she stepped forward to her full height and glared ferociously at her sister that even she stepped back and cringed before her.
“Maybe if you hadn’t been so eager to surrender, to give up the fight, and been trying to help our men we never would have been conquered. They would still be alive, and we could be sleeping in our own huts tonight instead of the enemy!”
Printara shrank back into the anonymity of the crowd from the blows of her tongue lashing. Allaynah spun around glaring at the other women gathered around her.
“Why is it that my sister here, the one who is always the first to complain, the first to whine, and the last to show any gratitude or generosity suddenly talking about being obedient and helpful? To the people who murdered our men and boys? Our men gave us everything, while the Bellamani men took everything from us. She gave our men nothing when they were alive, but now they’re dead she wants to give everything to these invaders? Can you not see how wicked she is? She gives suck and honours to her foes, but forsakes her family and friends who give her their charity willingly. She hated our men, she hates our tribe, and she hates us all because right now she wants us to live in the dirt like slaves instead of in huts like proud Paximani women should!”
The silence now was matched only by the stillness of the congregation as Allaynah continued her furious speech,
“When someone gives you something, for nothing, just because you are who you are, there is a temptation there to assume that person will always be there. They will always give you what you need no matter what, just as the sun gives us light every day no matter what we do or say about the sun. I remember asking my grandmother once, why is that we worship the sun when the sun will shine whether we adore it or scorn it. My grandmother said to me, that just because the sun will always give us light, for whatever reasons the sun has for doing this, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for the sun. Indeed, we should be more grateful to the sun, even in the winter, than the summer, because the sun is true for us no matter what. The wife who is true to her husband only when he is warm, successful in the hunt, strong with his arms, but who is ungrateful when he is poor of health, wounded in the hunt, or weaken by age, then she is no wife. She is a rat, a vulture, a hyena. Well hear me when I say, that the tribe is one family, and the men of the tribe are our husband, and we the women are the wife. Have we been wives to our husbands? Or have we been rats, vultures, and hyenas to them? Because until yesterday, I assumed there would always be a hut for me to sleep in. Because our men were always here to build one for us if we ever needed one. Yet today, there are no Paximani men left to build us a hut, and last night, before I fell asleep, all I could think about was each and every time I didn’t say thank you to a man for the food on my bowl, the animal skins I wore, nor the shelter ever present above my head as a dreamed peacefully through the night. I have treated them like the sun; always seeing and guided by them, but never once looking at them. Never once understanding them. Never once being truly grateful for them.”
A few eyes started to water and Allaynah could see that she had somehow grasped authority back from the group. The silence and stillness remained deeper and more sullen than ever. She didn’t know how, but she knew she couldn’t waste a moment, she had to get this hut build quickly, and she needed to get this women moving.
“If you don’t want to help me build this hut, that’s fair enough, because really, do any of us deserve to sleep anywhere other than the dirt right tonight? But if you’re like me, and you would like to atone for the sins of our past, then help me prove that the Paximani men didn’t die for a pack of cowardly treacherous rats. Work with me now to build this hut so that when the spirits of our men look down upon us they will not see their wives sleeping in the dirt, nor in the tents of their enemies, but living under roofs that they themselves built thanks to wisdom and strength of their worldly deeds now passed. Let them go to their eternal rest knowing that the Paximani are not yet fully vanquished.”