‘Mijara’s Freedom’, Eleanor Glewwe

Illustrations © 2020 Cécile Matthey

 [ My favorite cousin, © 2020 Cécile Matthey ] It was the year the fires raged in the south. We’d seen the pictures in the newspapers for weeks, the horizons made jagged by serrated curtains of flames, the forests choked with smoke, the charred ruins of deserted shantytowns. But when the ninth month drew near, Father took his usual leave from the Bureau of Extranational Affairs, supervised the packing of our trunks, and trundled us off to the train station. We hurtled down-country along the rails, just as if it were any other year, except that heavy blinds covered the windows of our car for the entire journey.

We arrived at the southern end of the line around sunset, but only Grandfather was waiting for us. My younger brother and I exchanged glances silently. Where were Uncle, Aunt, and our cousins? Was the train from the east behind schedule? Father, unfazed, greeted Grandfather with the traditional words and presented Mother, my brother, and me. I felt as though we were all specimens in a glass jar, isolated from the crowd streaming past us on the platform. Without my cousins, I felt ill-at-ease, as if part of me were missing.

No one spoke in the automobile on the way to the house. I didn’t dare ask after the rest of the family, but later I would learn that the Office of Transportation had limited the number of trains to the fire-ravaged region, reducing the schedules so drastically that the trains from the north and east alternated days. Our cousins had arrived a day before us and were waiting in the foyer under the family flag for another subdued round of formal greetings. My gaze met that of my favorite cousin as our fathers reintroduced us, as if we hadn’t exchanged letters all year. Mijara’s onyx eyes glinted with delight and excitement, but my face felt so stiff that I was sure I couldn’t have smiled, even if the occasion had permitted it.

To the relief of all of us cousins, Grandfather led his sons to his study while our mothers tiptoed off to the kitchen to join Grandmother in directing the preparation of the evening meal. It seems strange how often the adults left us to our own devices and how after the constricting rituals of reunion we were granted almost complete freedom. Of course, we were forbidden to open any doors to the outside world, but within our prison, we could roam and explore to our hearts’ content, as long as we didn’t venture into any rooms reserved for grownups.

The five of us walked deeper into the ancestral mansion. We reached the hall where the broad staircase from the second story spilled down to a marble floor so polished it looked wet. Here, Viksek took his leave. Mijara’s older brother had lately spent the annual visits in self-imposed solitude because he considered himself too close to manhood to associate with us. As he ascended the staircase, Mijara made a face at his retreating back. Then, with a crooked smile, she linked her arm with mine and dragged me down a corridor.

“Let’s play hide-and-seek in the statue room!” her brother Nelo said, raising his voice now that we were far out of the adults’ earshot.

Mijara and I indulgently followed the little boys to the windowless hall where bronze busts of each patriarch of the house were mounted on pedestals along the walls. The clicking of our shoes on stone echoed under the vaulted ceiling as we scattered in the museum of our ancestors. I knew that Father, as the elder brother, would inherit Grandfather’s mansion and position when Grandfather became a bronze bust. And then Father would also join this ghastly parade of disembodied heads growing from half-formed chests. I shuddered to think of it. But suddenly something new occurred to me. My brother was next in line after Father. Someday he would preside over the family home, welcoming his offspring and their families each summer with stiff ceremony. I couldn’t picture cherubic, long-lashed Darmiv as an old and bearded man waiting proudly at the train station. And I wouldn’t be around to see him like that.

“Lost in thought as usual, Evleti?” Mijara peeked around one of the glass cases in the middle of the hall. This one contained an ancient tablet carved with figures about the harvest in our family’s fields long ago.

“It’s no good hiding behind statues and artifact cases,” I said. “We’d be better off in the tapestry room.”

“Oh, the boys are young enough,” she said. It was true; my brother crouched in the doorway, counting aloud with his eyes scrunched up. A quick sweep of the hall sufficed to spot Nelo’s dark curls crowning a bald bronze head. “Besides, we don’t want to hide. It’s been too long since we last saw each other.”

“Yes, it has,” I murmured, drawn to the glimmer in her eyes that always made me feel dull beside her. “What did you do all of yesterday and today?”

“Nothing! Waited for you. Grandfather wouldn’t start school without all his students.”

“Oh. School.” During those summers away from the city, we only exchanged one sort of lessons for another. We spent as many hours shut in a reading room with Grandfather as we did prowling the mansion.

“Did you forget?” Mijara said. “It’s just like any other year, silly.”

I said nothing and followed her into the adjacent room. This one was among the house’s finest: the wood paneling on the walls was inlaid with nacre, stuffed wild animals with glass eyes stood proudly about the room, and double doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the valley. That day, however, the doors were locked and the shades somehow stuck shut. All the same, the two of us caught a whiff of smoke as soon as we entered, and the faintly acrid smell only grew more noticeable as we wandered among the beasts.

“Smell that?” Mijara said, running her fingers down an antelope’s back.

“It must be coming from the kitchens,” I said. “Don’t touch.”

“The kitchens are on the other side of the house,” she said, ignoring my second remark. Inhaling theatrically, she added, “That’s the smell of freedom.”

“Freedom?” I echoed. Mijara frequently came up with this kind of outlandish pronouncement, and though I expressed skepticism, I secretly wished to understand the world the way she did.

“It seeps in from outside, cracking our impenetrable fortress. I can smell the hills miles away.”

“The hills burning,” I said uneasily, watching her tug at the doors to the balcony. They held fast.

“There’s nothing to do in here either,” she said, sinking onto a rosewood stool. “How’s school? Still winning all the prizes?”

“Not all of them,” I said, trying not to look too pleased. “And you? Still causing the most trouble?”

“Very funny. I’ll make you do something exciting yet, Evleti.”

Dinner was excruciating because it meant the two of us couldn’t speak to each other for an hour. It was cruel to impose this silence on us so soon after our reunion. We had barely begun catching up, and now all we could do was glance at each other across the table while eating duck stewed in wine sauce. All the cousins, and our mothers and Grandmother too, were expected to dine without uttering a word unless directly addressed. Viksek was old enough now that if he contributed a sentence to the conversation here and there, no one glared at him. That summer he was even acknowledged more than a few times.

No one spoke to us until dessert. Savoring the burnt sugar flavor of caramelized fruit, I scarcely realized that Grandfather was addressing us until I heard him mention school.

“Lessons begin tomorrow immediately following breakfast, in the library adjacent to my study,” he was saying in his gravelly voice.

We nodded our understanding and waited to be dismissed. In the corridor outside the dining room, Mother caught me by the sleeve and whispered, “Some nights the women will dine separately. Then we’ll be able to talk.”

“Something to look forward to, at least,” Mijara said as we headed to the bedroom we shared on the second floor.

We found the windows shut and heavy winter curtains drawn, but Mijara swept them aside without a thought. I peered through the glass as eagerly as she, but the night was a dense black. We had arrived in the evening and eaten late.

“I thought we’d seen an orange glow on the hills at least,” Mijara said, disappointed.

“It’s strange that the winter curtains have been left up,” I said, fingering the material.

“Or put back up,” my cousin said darkly. “It’s like on the train. I’m telling you, the government wants to stop everyone in the south from looking outside.”

“If that were true, all the windows would be blackened,” I said, crossing the room to begin unpacking my clothes. “This is just Grandfather’s doing.”

“No matter,” Mijara said, cheerful once more. She flopped onto her bed, flinging out her arms as if to embrace the ceiling. “We’ll look out tomorrow.”

We didn’t have the chance to before breakfast, but the disconcerting smell of smoke lingered in every room, defying Grandfather’s authority. I couldn’t understand how it had penetrated the whole mansion and wondered if I was imagining it. After all, even if we were in the south, hillside after hillside separated us from the nearest fires. But Mijara claimed to smell the smoke too.

Grandfather was waiting when we cousins trooped into the library. It was shaped like a small amphitheater, and bookshelves lined the circular wall, enclosing us with the printed word. The five of us sat down at our desks. Unlike in the schools we attended at home, boys and girls shared this classroom, but Mijara and I sat behind our brothers, higher in the amphitheater and farther from Grandfather.

He did not teach us any of the subjects we studied at our real schools, instead instructing us in more arcane knowledge. All the most powerful families prided themselves on the traditional education they provided for their children. I didn’t know what was taught in other families, but Grandfather focused on the grammar of Kaludar, the history of the Jelmal family, and the myths from before the memory of man.

That morning, Grandfather began with a riddle. It was in Kaludar, a dead language dragged into each new century by the priestly class and their wealthy patrons. When none of the boys, not even Viksek, spoke up, I offered an answer.

Grandfather looked at me sharply, but I was confident I was right, and after a moment he nodded. From there he plunged into a review of Kaludar verb families, occasionally calling on us to conjugate. Of the five cousins, I had the most fluency in the language. My secret was to construct each sentence mentally so I could say it aloud without pausing to find a forgotten word or correct a badly declined pronoun.

After an hour, Grandfather changed subjects without warning and began telling the creation story. He invariably recited it on the first day of lessons. Though the myths belonged to a time disembodied from our country’s history, they were still an integral part of the national identity. They were told with the same Kaludar words every time. By the year of the fires, I had absorbed enough of the oral tales that I could anticipate whole sentences with secret pleasure. Sometimes, when no one could hear me, I would murmur bits of the myths I knew. It was not allowed for me to do so, but I couldn’t resist tapping into the stories’ primal power.

When Grandfather dismissed us, Mijara and the little boys leaped from their desks while Viksek and I followed with more dignity. Perhaps it was fitting, as we were Grandfather’s best students. I thought my oldest cousin was about to say something to me, but he only gave me a hard stare, as if accusing me of having shamed him with my superior memory.

After the midday meal, Mijara and I took refuge in a cramped art studio buried deep in the mansion. It had been Grandfather’s father’s sanctuary, and now we were allowed to go in whenever we liked and even use the stacks of soft paper, the brushes, and the vast array of paints. Mijara was more inclined towards drawing and painting than I was, but the studio was one of the few rooms in the house where I could breathe a sigh of relief. No adult ever crossed its threshold, and the art supplies insulated us from the regimented atmosphere outside, where we constantly had to remember every formula of respect.

“Look at these reds and oranges, Evleti,” Mijara called from the paint cupboards. “Each shade fierier than the last.”

“What are you going to paint?” I asked, unsure if I wanted to hear the answer. She hadn’t yet sketched a single line.

“What do you think? The fires, of course!” Mijara poked her head out of the cupboard, her hair disheveled and dried paint chips freckling her face.

“But you haven’t seen them!” I said, chilled at the idea of painting nature’s destructive forces at all.

“Oh, I’ve seen pictures in the newspapers,” she said. “And anyway, we’ll see out the windows before we leave!”

“They aren’t that close to us,” I mumbled. Then, with more spirit, I added, “People are dying because of the fires, you know. Villages are burning to the ground.”

Mijara emerged again from the paints. “But those are just Ker-Thav shantytowns, right?” Her lips formed a bitter smile as unexpected as it was fleeting.

The next morning, Mijara woke me a good half hour before we had to rise for breakfast.

“Now’s our chance, Evleti!”

I rolled away from her, entangling myself in silken sheets. “What? It’s too early!”

“Well, if you’re too lazy to get up, I’ll see out of this prison before you do!”

“You’re welcome to,” I muttered, turning my head away from the window so the flood of light wouldn’t hurt my eyes.

I heard the swish of heavy fabric as Mijara slid the curtains aside, then a small gasp. I cracked open my eyes and discovered that the bedroom hadn’t brightened noticeably.

“Come look,” said my cousin. It was her hushed tone that persuaded me to rise.

We stood shoulder to shoulder, our faces pressed to the glass. Below us, the wall of the mansion plunged down one story to the scrubby earth, which itself fell steeply away into a bowl-shaped valley. The land rose again, forming gentle hills that extended as far as we could see. Nearby, they were dry and brown, dotted with strange vegetation unlike anything we had in the north. In the distance, the hills were furred with trees, and in at least four places, black smoke billowed up from the earth.

“The sky,” Mijara said in awe. I tore my gaze from those threatening spouts of smoke to take in the color of the heavens, which portended disaster in its wrongness. It wasn’t quite white and it wasn’t quite gray, and towards the horizon it blushed a terrifying, bruised orange.

“Look in the valley,” Mijara said.

The dramatic display in the hills had kept me from noticing what had sprouted up practically at the foot of the hill upon which Grandfather’s house stood. Dozens of crudely built houses, no more than huts, really, huddled together in clusters. There were no streets, but I could see bobbing heads moving through a maze of paths between the houses.

“A Ker-Thav shantytown,” I whispered. “It didn’t exist last year.”

“No, it’s new all right,” Mijara said, excitement replacing her grimness. “It’s a wonder Grandfather let them settle here. But look at those colored cloths, Evleti!”

Between their houses, the Ker-Thav had stretched clotheslines laden with every kind of garment. Except it looked as though the clothes had been hung to form the most garish arrangement possible, and some of the cloths flapping in the breeze seemed to be nothing but rags in loud colors.

 [ Cloths flapping in the breeze, © 2020 Cécile Matthey ]

“What could that be for? Those clothes aren’t drying,” I said.

“Maybe it’s just for decoration. It’s festive, isn’t it?” Mijara said.

“No Ker-Thav shantytown I’ve seen ever had clotheslines like that,” I said.

“Maybe it’s a special occasion, then.” My cousin shrugged and went to her dresser to pick out her clothes. I lingered a moment before that landscape of smoke-laden hills before drawing the curtains.

Grandfather moved lessons to the afternoon, so the two of us spent the morning in the map room. To my relief, Grandmother arranged for the women to eat lunch in a parlor away from the dining room. Mijara and I shared a richly upholstered divan and took lamb and roast pepper sandwiches from a tiered serving dish. We smiled at each other between bites, unable to get a word in during Grandmother’s tirade about the kitchen servants. Mijara, who never had much of an appetite, soon finished eating and began prodding the curtains behind us. I realized with a start that this room’s single window looked out upon the same view as the one in our bedroom. Disturbed, I nudged her, hoping she would desist, but of course she didn’t.

“—came out of nowhere and has already premiered an opera—Mijara, what are you doing?” Aunt said sharply, a sandwich held halfway to her mouth.

“Just looking outside, Mother.” She had in fact just found the break in the curtains and had stuck her head through.

Aunt looked helplessly at Mother. “Why would anyone wish to look at the squalor and desolation outside when in a room such as this?”

There came an audible intake of breath from behind the curtain. Then my cousin spoke with the same awe I had heard in her voice that morning. “You must see this.”

Perhaps it was Mijara’s natural authority, or perhaps it was that our elders were simply accustomed to doing what they were told. In any case, Grandmother and our mothers crowded around me as my cousin pulled aside the curtain.

The landscape had changed from that morning. In the distance, smoke had spilled over the hills, filling the valleys with what looked like fallen clouds. Even the air in our valley seemed thicker. The sky along the hilltops glowed a ghastly, burning color that was reflected in the blankets of smoke smothering the ground.

“What a sight!” Mother exclaimed. “Cover the window. Curtains are drawn for a reason.”

“How peculiar!” Aunt said before Mijara obeyed. “Why is the shantytown full of colored scraps of cloth?”

“They have some sort of heathen festival coming up,” Grandmother said. “The hanging of clothes is part of it.”

Aunt shuddered and returned to her seat, but Mijara elbowed me and gave me a significant look. Bewildered, I shook my head slightly, but she’d already looked away.

That afternoon, before Grandfather could begin lessons, my cousin leaped up from her seat and stood beside her desk, waiting to be acknowledged. The general astonishment was palpable. After a short pause, Grandfather asked her what she wanted.

“Will you tell us about the festival the Ker-Thav are preparing for in the valley?” she asked.

I feared it was a mistake to reveal that she had looked out a window when it seemed clear that everyone from the government on down wanted us to keep our eyes indoors. But Grandfather, his lined face unreadable, agreed to tell us.

His voice had almost the same weight as when he told the myths, but he spoke in our everyday language, since there were no Kaludar words for this tale.

“Tomorrow night,” he began, “is the full moon, the brightest full moon of the year, according to the Ker-Thav. For them, it is the night of the Festival of Insults.”

I thought I heard a muffled snort from one of the boys, but Grandfather ignored it and went on.

“The Ker-Thav believe that on this night, malicious spirits rise out of the earth in clouds of smoke and rove among the living. They try to hurt those who are dear to the Ker-Thav, so to protect their friends and family, they celebrate all night while hurling insults at one another. If they hide their affection, the spirits will pass over them.”

Now I distinctly heard someone whisper, “And do they bless their enemies, so the spirits get them?” No one ever dared speak when Grandfather was teaching. But this was only a story about the Ker-Thav, hardly a real lesson.

“The Ker-Thav also don grotesque masks for the night and strew their shantytown with bright strips of cloth, to disorient the spirits.”

“You say the spirits come in clouds of smoke,” Mijara said. “But this year there is smoke in the valley.”

“I suspect this year’s festival will be suffused with a greater sense of urgency than is usual,” Grandfather said. Then he shifted effortlessly into the day’s lesson, and all talk of the Ker-Thav ended.

That night, Mijara was still pacing around the bedroom long after I’d climbed into bed. Her agitation was beginning to banish my sleepiness, and I wasn’t about to thank her for it.

“Aren’t you surprised Grandfather knew all that about the Ker-Thav?” she said, striding past the foot of my bed. “Maybe he isn’t as stuck in this house as I thought. It gives one hope, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not just Jelmal first, country next, everyone else, never.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I doubt Grandfather cares about the Ker-Thav. I’m sure he wants to know the customs of a people who’ve built a shantytown on his doorstep. Gathering information on foreigners is part of what Father does at the Bureau, you know.”

“The Bureau!” Mijara scoffed. “Sometimes, Evleti, I wonder why I have to be an official’s wife instead of an official, and then I realize I wouldn’t even want to work for the government!”

Her spirit kindled my own bottled-up resentment at the narrowness of the path open to me, but unlike her I didn’t want to stir up my feelings. I rolled over, closed my eyes, and began murmuring the words of a myth like a quiet prayer. I’d forgotten Mijara’s sharp ears.

“What’s that? Not the story of how man got fire?” she said.

“It’s nothing.”

“How appropriate for this summer.” There was a hysterical edge to her voice that had nothing to do with my muttering. “But why speak so softly?”

“Mijara, it’s time to—”

“—and at dusk, the dying sun filled the sky with colors that held the promise of fire for man!” she said, almost shouting, in Kaludar.

“What are you doing? Someone will hear you!” I was stunned by her boldness, and by the fact that she knew the myth as well as I.

“No, they won’t. Ours is the only bedroom in this wing.”

“Please don’t do it again. You know only men can recite the myths.”

“You were doing it,” Mijara said stubbornly.

“In a whisper,” I countered, my face heating.

She clenched her fists and took off again across the room. “I’m sick of this. Of constantly watching my tongue. Of living in this gilded prison. I’m stuck in this country. Stuck as a girl.”

“Mijara…” I said weakly. “It’s all right.”

“That’s not true, Evleti. Why can’t you say what you think?” She turned angrily away from me. Then she stiffened, looked slowly back at me, and said, “I’ve got it.”


“We both need to get out of this place. Tomorrow night we’ll sneak out into the valley and see the festival.”

At first, I was too shocked to speak. When my cousin gave no sign that she was joking, I said faintly, “You mean go into the shantytown?”

“Why not? I’m sure the Ker-Thav are more welcoming than the Jelmal family,” Mijara said, suddenly cheerful now that her idea had taken hold.

“We’re not Ker-Thav. And how could we even get out?”

“If we poke around in the kitchens, we’ll find a servants’ door or something.”

“No, Mijara.”

Breaking into a smile, she approached my bed, and I knew that despite my better judgment, I would be out in the valley the following night.

She masterminded our escape from the mansion while I followed, drunk with dread and hardly aware of how she was getting us out. The cool, smoke-laced air of the summer night took me by surprise, and I emerged from my stupor to see Mijara shoving a rock into place to keep the door from closing. We waited a moment in the shadow of our ancestral home, listening to the joyous din rising from the lantern-studded shantytown below.

Mijara seemed to be savoring freedom through every sense, but finally she led the way down the treacherous hillside. Pebbles skittered out from under our feet, but clutching each other’s hands, we made it down unscathed. Now I could make out individual shouts in the hubbub and see masked children darting between the houses.

“Are you sure about this?” I said.

“I’ve never been surer in my life.”

We drew nearer, pulled into the shantytown’s orbit. The air appeared slightly foggy, and I fought back panic, fearing the fires were just over the next hill. The closer we got, the more dizzying was the swirl of color and light amidst the shacks. Suddenly, we were in the thick of it: two Jelmal cousins in a sea of strangers. The Ker-Thav had hair as black as ours, but it hung thick and straight, and their skin under the grime was lighter than ours, almost sallow. That night, of course, everyone wore hideous masks with sneering mouths and animal features. The faces surrounded me, disembodied and moving too quickly for me to take in any one for more than a second.

I grabbed hold of Mijara’s hand as the crowd shunted us through a forest of clothes hanging from the sky. The air grew even hazier as we moved into the center of the village. The smell of cooking oil and rotten waste was mixed in with the irritating smoke, and I coughed frequently as my cousin pulled me along.

When a swinging red skirt slapped me in the face, covering my mouth and nose, I cried out and lost Mijara’s hand. Terrified, I batted the fabric away and found her accepting a meat skewer from a young boy.

“Try some?” she shouted. I shook my head vigorously. The meat could have been from any organ from any animal, and it was crusted with blackened spices that hardly looked appetizing.

Before I knew it, Mijara had obtained masks for us and had put on one, an awful combination of tiger and lizard.

“Don’t, please,” I called over the noise. “I can’t recognize you.”

She just laughed and tried to force me to put the other one on. I knocked it away and reached for her hand again.

“It’s the Festival of Insults! Come on, Evleti, don’t let the spirits get us. You’re a…a lemon-faced crow!”

“Stop it! Let’s go back!” I screamed at her.

“You have to insult me, or they’ll take me away forever,” Mijara said. I couldn’t understand how I heard all her words but she none of mine.

Suddenly, something broke cleanly inside me, and I felt a bitter surge of fury. “Fine! You selfish, irresponsible, foolish, careless, childish—”

I never reached a suitable noun because the Ker-Thav throng began sweeping us along, Mijara faster than me. Unable to grasp any part of her or her clothing, I pressed desperately forward, keeping the awful stripes of her mask in sight. As the shouting, whipping rags, and strange smells began to meld into one frightening barrage of the senses, I tuned in to an underlying music, the ominous thumping of drums and the whine of a stringed instrument. Ahead of me, I could only clearly distinguish one thing: Mijara. Her mask still faced me, and she seemed to be luring me onwards.

Beyond another curtain of gaudy cloths, through another smokescreen… With a start, I realized the tiger mask was gone. My skin turned icy despite the village’s warmth. Certain that she couldn’t have gone far, I fought my way forward. “Mijara!” I shouted, my throat aching as the crush of people thrust me back into a vortex of smoke and color. “Mijara!”

Time had no meaning as I wandered the shantytown. At first, I expected to find my cousin around every corner, but soon I began to believe the shantytown had swallowed her up. I was deaf to the cacophony of insults, blind to the bizarre street dances. I tore through that shantytown, calling till my voice left me. I might never have returned to the house, except that two Ker-Thav women eventually noticed the stranger in their midst and guided me to the edge of the village, pointing up at the mansion and speaking kindly to me in an alien tongue.

I stumbled up the hill, through the kitchen door, and back to my own bedroom. There I discovered my hair was knotted, my clothes filthy, and my skin filmed with dirt. In the dead of night, I hid my ruined clothes, bathed, washed my hair, and crawled into bed, praying that Mijara would be back by morning. I had left the stone wedged in the kitchen door.

I slept fitfully and rose again just after dawn. I was still alone in the bedroom. Sick with terror, I presented myself in the dining room for breakfast as usual.

“Where is Mijara?” Grandfather said before I could sit down.

A whirlwind of possible replies flew through my mind, but I couldn’t face admitting what we had done. And so the only answer left to me was, “I don’t know.”

This sufficed for several hours, but when an exhaustive search of the mansion yielded nothing, I sensed the tension escalating. I was again questioned, but they could get little out of me. When a servant brought word that a kitchen door had been left ajar, the cousins’ lessons were called off, and Grandfather left his fortress to direct a search party in the nearby hills. By now, Uncle and Aunt were in a frenzy, but I avoided any confrontations by hiding out in various rooms.

The evening meal passed dismally. I knew that if Mijara returned she would face the wrath of the entire family, but I now feared that I would never see my cousin again. I retired immediately after dinner and sat in the lonely bedroom, trying to read.

That night was the first time I had prepared for bed in that house without Mijara. It felt wrong, because being at Grandfather’s had always meant living as Mijara’s sister. I stayed awake in the dark a long time, weighed down with guilt for having lost her in the crowd, for not having stopped her from going. Eventually I sank into a raging sea of dreams.

I woke with a start in the pitch black, my screams echoing under the high ceiling and their sensation still fresh in my throat. I cast aside the sheets and sat up, struggling to catch my breath. The emptiness of the room extended in my imagination to the whole mansion. No one had heard my cries. No one came running to see what the matter was. I was utterly alone in my torment. The walls pressed in on me, and I flung my head back on the pillow, deeply afraid.

The next morning, I didn’t get up. People and sounds floated past me in a strange fog, and once I heard an unfamiliar voice remarking on my high fever. The illness passed in a few days, but then the National Army came and announced that the fires were spreading over the hills and that we would have to evacuate. Our summer in the south was cut short, and I returned home on the train, wrapped in a blanket. The search for Mijara was over.

The year of the fires remains the clearest in my memory. Naturally, I returned to the house, every summer, and never again did we have to leave early. As I neared the end of my schooling and the time when I would leave the Jelmal family forever, I realized that I could not forsake Mijara. I could never stop returning to the mansion on the hill. And so I chose my own freedom, another way. I never married.

Now I spend the year in a cramped apartment in the city, visiting libraries to study massive dictionaries, histories, and bestiaries. I am a scholar, shamefully dependent on my birth family. Each summer, I take the train south to the house where Father is now head of the Jelmals, and on the night of the full moon, I find a way out and descend into the valley. I walk among the now abandoned shanties of the Ker-Thav, listening to the silence and the memories of shouted insults and unrelenting drumbeats. Then I climb the hill once more, a bitter taste in my mouth, reflecting that though I have chosen a path few women take, I never had Mijara’s courage.

An earlier version of this story with the title ‘Parvana’s Freedom’, was published in 2008 in Images, a student literary magazine of Edina High School in Edina, MN.

© 2020 Eleanor Glewwe

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