‘Where Thorns Can Grow’, Meryl Stenhouse

Illustrations © 2018 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Thorns, © 2018, Katharine A. Viola ] I was in the loft above an empty goatshed, the hay stalks poking me through my woollen skirt, distracting me from the book on my lap, the book I had stolen from the temple library while the men were at their meal last night. Below me on the lane people chatted as they went about their day, but no one looked up to see me.

I stared at the pages, inhaled their scent, tried to decipher their meaning. Again. It couldn’t be that hard. Boys younger than me could read. Yet no matter how long I stared at the black marks, traced them with my finger, they remained silent, keeping their secrets, the secrets of power and authority that only men could know.

Bells clonked in the distance as the goats foraged at the base of the mountain behind the village, grazing on the sparse thorn bushes. A cold wind blew, bringing with it a sharp, metal tang, unlike anything in the village or the wide plains around, and that drew my attention away from the mysterious book.

The wheat fields surrounding the village were patterned green with the emerging shoots of wheat, fresh against the dry red soil. From the edge of the desert that lay on our western side, something roared. The air trembled. I flew to the door of the loft, hanging from the frame, searching across the roofs, squinting into the blinding light.

The air trembled again. Dust sifted down from the roof into my hair. People on the street paused in the shadows between the houses.

A great, black, shining shape rumbled out of the dunes, crushing the tender stalks of wheat beneath its iron feet, rigid arms pointed to the sky. Black, so black, streaked with bands of red, like a demon from the old stories. Prana and her family ran before it, discarding tools and screaming like the darting white falcons that hunted lizards among the tumbled rocks. I covered my mouth to still my laughter as Prana ran past below me, her skirt hitched up to show old brown legs flashing in the sunlight.

The men gathered at the edge of the village, where the mud-walled huts ended and the fields began, rock and sand, stunted crops baking in the sun. Picks and hoes and hammers and brooms, mighty weapons to take on a gargantuan beast of the ancient world. I could hear the wailing of the women and children behind me, hidden in the village hall, away from the demon’s sight.

No one had thought to check if I was in there. Or perhaps my mother, struggling to comfort my brothers and sisters, had looked up for a moment and cursed me for not being at hand.

“It comes,” cried Pali, the baker’s son, sixteen years of short limbs and rounded cheeks, clutching the bread paddle to his chest. As if we needed to be told, when the great black form, hot and slick and streaked with red rust, towered over our houses. The only thing larger than it was the mountain at our back.

They stood before it, every man who could call himself so, as the demon crawled closer and I peered around the frame, waiting for the moment when it would reach them. The sound of it filled the world. The men cried out as they were cast into shadow. Its long arms turned, grinding and groaning like rocks before they fell from the mountain. It pointed its arms at them, and washed them with puffs of air, rank and harsh and smelling so odd, sharp and tangy in the back of my throat.

The men broke ranks and ran, ducking between the houses, crying out in their fear. I could not move. I crouched, trembling, in the doorway of the loft, unable to run, so that I saw it pass beneath me, washed by its foul breath until I choked and gasped. It brushed against the edge of the goatshed, and mudbrick cracked and cascaded into the narrow lane. I clutched the doorframe as the building trembled.

I did not fall. The demon passed by, roaring, the thunder of its passage filling the world, crunching, grinding its way through the village.

When the noise had passed I climbed down and ran to the edge of the village. Beyond there were more fields, and then the blocky shape of the mountain, rising to the north, a solitary, stunted grey peak surrounded by a fuzz of thorn bushes. The demon came to the base of it, where the remains of an old road ended in a pile of rubble and a great hole.

The men had followed it, too, and stood clutching their weapons, watching it rumble forward and back, iron treads grinding against the edge of the hole. It could go no further.

Someone threw a stone, which bounced off the demon’s body. When it didn’t respond, another stone followed, then another. Under the hail of rock it continued to jerk forward and back, pausing at the edge of the rubble, as if unaware of the sting of stone.

“Yllka!” My mother’s voice rose behind me, sharp and strident. I ducked out of habit, then ran home, to find that my house had been in the path of the demon, and was nothing now but a pile of crushed brick, its passing marked by my mother’s wailing. Her eyes lit up when she saw me and she reached out for me. But her hug was brief, her happiness quickly replaced by the more familiar scowl.

“Where were you, Yllka, foolish girl.” My mother’s slap was not unexpected, felt too many times to have any effect other than to make my cheek red. “Daydreaming somewhere, and what if you’d been in our house when it was crushed, breaking my heart, selfish girl, and one less hand when I’m already short handed.”

I helped her pick things out of the rubble, a cup still in one piece, a wooden spoon, clothes now brown with mudbrick dust.

We moved into a room in the baker’s house, all of us, mother and father and seven children all pressed together, squashed like dates in a sticky cake. I liked that the baker’s wife, Teutra, gave us fresh, thin bread wrapped around spicy lentils. I did not like the way that my mother and Teutra would talk in low voices, and then look at me. I did not like the way they said my name and Pali’s name together. I took my meal and ran into the village, with my mother’s voice at my heels.

I leaned in the window of Jehona’s house and ate my food, dropping bits of it on the floor. Jehona rose from her spinning wheel to sweep it up before her mother saw it, her shawl wrapped demurely around her shoulders, her throat modestly hidden, her hair covered. She would not sit on the windowsill and laugh with me like she used to, but she leaned against the wall out of sight and took a bite of my food, covering her mouth and her laughter with her hand.

“You will be getting fat on Teuta’s wares.”

“There’s plenty that can’t be sold. No wonder Pali is so round.”

We laughed together over Pali’s figure, not tall and imposing like a man should be, but fleshy and short, and with hardly any beard. My father’s beard reached the belt around his waist.

“My father says they are going to have a meeting tomorrow night, in the hall, after temple,” said Jehona.

“About the demon?” I offered her another bite. I had not been the only one to connect this stinking, towering vision with the tales of the demons who had risen up and destroyed the world.

Jehona waved the offering away. “What else? I heard him organising with your father who is to watch the demon and warn us if it comes into the village.”

“Maybe the women, if the men are going to be meeting.”

“No, the women will be in the hall, too. Everyone will.”

I was excited to be going. Women never went to listen when the elders gathered to make decisions or law. When Prana’s cousin was on trial for the murder of his wife, I had tried to sneak in, but had been caught. My father had made sure I was kept at home on the day they took Afrim out into the desert and twisted a rope around his neck until he died. “Will we have the chance to speak, do you think?”

“I think they want everyone to see they are doing something,” said Jehona.

But I was already dreaming of saying something profound so that my father would notice, would realise how intelligent I was. So that my mother might talk less about Pali, and how he would take over the bakery one day.

I went home when dusk crept across the desert, past the gaps where houses used to be, where the wind carved new paths through the village, slicing chill through my shawl. Pali waited in the shadows near the door. He offered me a date cake, his dark eyes trying to meet mine. I ran off into the dark with Pali calling my name.

The stink and rumble of the demon led me on through the night. Closer, the little flashing, flickering lights on its curved underbelly, red and orange, painted the rock in new colours. I squatted down against a wall, pulling my shawl tighter about me against the bone-deep chill. Did the demon feel it? Did it register the scattered stars above? Why had it come here? We had nothing of value. In fact, it seemed completely uninterested in us. On occasion it would rumble to noisy, stinking life, loop through the village and then return to the fallen ramp and sit, still but not silent, rumbling in the darkness, breathing thick fumes into the air.

A light flashed above on the mountain, a tiny pinprick in the night.

“Yllka! Yllka!” My mother’s voice came out of the darkness, frantic, calling me back to the safety of the bakery. Not our home.

Home. I turned my back on the demon and ran towards the baker’s house. Was the mountain calling to the demon? There were old walls on top of the mountain, at the end of the ruined road, old walls with red metal bones. Where did demons live?

In our little room in the baker’s house my father beat me with a switch. I had forgotten to put the book back and it had been found, dusty and stained, in the pen with the goats. No use denying it was me. I had been stealing books since the time I had first understood that they weren’t for me.

I didn’t like sitting in the hall, pressed against my neighbours with my thighs still stinging and raw, but it was worth it. Excitement sang through me. My mother was too busy with my brothers and sisters, too busy exchanging fearful thoughts with our neighbours. I tuned them out, focused on the elders gathered at the front of the hall. I had the answer, and tonight everyone would hear me. Everyone would know.

Someone touched my hand and I yanked it away, thinking it was Pali. But it was Jehona who sat beside me. I gave her a smile and reached for her hand. She squeezed back, and leaned over to speak in my ear. “I heard my father say they have a solution. They’re going to tell everyone.”

Kostandin stood and everyone quieted, their gazes focused on him. He had only to open his mouth and people would listen. What would it be like, I thought, to have that power?

“My friends, I know many of you are afraid of this demon that has come to us from the ancient world.”

I shivered, imagining that world, so long legend, the great cities inhabited by demons such as these, the fire that had burned the world and filled the skies with ash.

“Many of you are asking, how long until the demon destroys our village? Why can you not defeat it? But my friends, we cannot hurt the demon with our weapons, such that they are.”

“Send someone to the capitol. Let them bring an army,” cried Behar. Many voices joined him in the call.

Kostandin raised his hands again for silence. I bit the words that wanted to burst from inside me. I gripped the edge of my seat, hovering, waiting for the moment to cry I have the answer.

“It will take many weeks to reach the capitol, and more still to return with an army. And in that time, it may destroy half the village.”

A great wail rose up then. Everyone spoke at once. Men shouted for quiet, women cried out, children caught the upset of their parents and added their voices.

“It wants to go home,” I said. Nobody heard me. I cleared my throat, tried to be heard over the shouting and wailing. “It wants to go home.” My mother spared a moment in her wailing to shush me. I pushed her hand away.

Kostandin raised his hands for silence once more. Now was my chance. As the voices stilled, I hitched up my skirts and stood on my chair.

“It wants to go home!”

Silence fell for a moment, shock at my rudeness, to interrupt the men. I rushed on while I could. “It is trying to climb the mountain, but it cannot, because the path is broken. If we—”

Sharp pain bloomed in my ear and I cried out, was yanked off my chair, to fall heavily against my mother. I caught the expression on my father’s face across the room, the glance he exchanged with my mother, before I was dragged away by the ear and out the door.

My mother said not a word to me as she dragged me through the village, ignoring my cries, my pleading to go back so I could finish what I wanted to say. She threw me through the door onto the floor. She said not a word as she picked up the switch, yanked my dress up and laid into the already tender flesh with the springy branch of a young olive tree.

I lay on the hard pallet in our room in the baker’s house and cried while my mother went back to the meeting. I was right. I knew that I was. How could I make them listen?

My family returned and I rose to help with the evening meal, grinding wheat into coarse meal, keeping the younger children occupied, fetching things from the storeroom to show my mother I was helpful. My mother would not meet my eye, her expression distant and forbidding. I kept my tongue. Later, when everyone had been fed, I would apologise to my father, and then I would tell him about the light on top of the mountain.

But after dinner, my mother hurried me into the kitchen to clean up before I could speak to him. I hovered near the door, trying to hear what the men were talking about, until she slapped me and pushed me over to scrub the big clay pots. I stood before the tub, rebellion in my heart. “Mamma, I need to talk to father.”

“He’s busy. There is much planning to do.”

“About the demon?”

“It is none of your concern.”

“But I need to tell them—”

“The decision has already been made. Kostandin said that the demon is trying to get to the top of the mountain.

“I knew it! They did listen to me.”

“What are you talking about? It was Kostandin who said it.”

“No, I said it. You heard me, mother, you were there. Everyone heard me!”

“Rubbish. A girl know more than the head of the village?”

“But I said it! I said it before him! You heard me!” I tried to catch my mother’s eye, but she kept her gaze on her work, her lips pressed together.

“I heard a rude girl interrupt the men at their discussions.” My mother exchanged a glance with the baker’s wife, who shook her head. “A girl who sneaks around and listens in to conversations she should not. Did you think that no one would know? You overheard them and claimed the idea as your own.”

“I overheard nothing. This was my idea! I thought of it, and Kostandin stole it!”

My mother slammed her cloth down onto the wood. “Who will marry such a girl? You need to watch your manners, Yllka. Do you want to be known as a nag who will bother her husband with her sneaky ways?”

“I don’t want to marry anyone!”

“And who will look after you then when I am gone?” She bent over, her lips tight, scrubbing and scrubbing at the wooden boards. “Who wants a troublesome wife?”

It was Teuta’s look of pity, not my mother’s scowl, that stilled my cries. I turned away, plunged my arms into the pot of scalding water, topped the level up with my hot tears, not caring if anyone heard me cry.

My father didn’t give me a beating, though I expected one. I glared at the wall, listened to them sleeping behind me, a hard, bitter thorn growing in my belly.

Jehona was at the spinning wheel again when I rushed out the next morning, my belly empty.

“I heard you,” said Jehona, her hands busy with the thread of wool. “I know it was you.”

I wanted to ask her to speak to her father, to make him admit that it had been my idea. But I couldn’t ask her that. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I am as smart as any man—”

“But that’s not the way of things, Yllka.”

I scowled at a passing woman, tsking to see me leaning in the window. She glared back at me and hurried on. “We used to dream about running away, of following the old road until we reached the capitol.”

“We were children, Ylkka, playing childish games. We are women now.”

Didn’t I know it. Once a month, trapped in the house with my mother to prevent my curse from putting the goats off their milk or stealing men’s virility. Every month I thought that I should put these ideas to the test, thought of more than one man whose virility could do with some cursing, but my mother kept me in her gaze all the time, and the switch close at hand. “I don’t want to be a woman,” I snapped.

“But you are.” Jehona tugged more wool from the basket beside her, deft fingers twisting it into the growing strand. “A goat can’t be anything but a goat.”

“I don’t want to be a goat, either.”

Jehona didn’t laugh. “Be what you are, Yllka. Then you’ll be at peace.”

I knew what she meant. Embrace the life I had been born into. Marriage. Children. I jerked away from her and ran, ran between the houses, out and into the fields, mad Yllka running with her skirts blowing behind her, the thorn sharp and sticky in my belly.

 [ Demon, © 2018, Katharine A. Viola ] The stones of the ramp were still there, tumbled down, some of them broken. We had our own narrow path up the mountain, past the sticking thorn bushes to the summit, wide and flat and surrounded by a jumble of cracked and fallen walls, slabs of stone larger than the side of a house, grey and stained with red iron bones sticking out.

It was hard to move the stones, to pull them with ropes and mule, to lever them up with the hard trunks of old olive trees. The men went out as dawn broke the sky, leaving the women and children to work in the fields. The wheat grew tall, the green stalks hissing in the dry wind, bleaching under the sun until the stems hung heavy with fat ears. The demon lurked before the ramp, rumbled, still, until without warning it would turn and grind a new path around the mountain, sometimes through the fields, laying a barren path through the crops, sometimes through the village, crushing more houses beneath its long feet.

By the time the harvest came in, the demon’s pathways criss-crossed the village like the veins on Prana’s legs. Some days the men could not work at all, when the demon sat right against the base of the ramp, gases swirling around it, choking. The men washed their faces in the well, and my father came to bed with red rims around his eyes.

No one had died. The young boys were set to watch it, and when it rumbled to life they ran through the village before it, shouting a warning to those in its path, so they could gather their children and run into the street, to watch it crush their house into splinters and dust. Sometimes it only clipped a house, and you could see into the rooms, see the dust and sand settle on the floor.

Then the day came when the demon moved away. The men hurried to place the last stones that would connect the broken road with the stone ramp leading upwards. The boys ran before the demon, chattering like birds, no longer afraid. Their shouts heralded its return. “It comes! It comes!”

It crushed another house to dust and then it was here. It ground its feet at the ramp, the long iron rails scratching at the stone, until it gripped and moved upward.

A great cheer tore from my throat, and from the throat of all of us who watched. Men laughed and clapped their hands. Women raised their children up so they could see the demon passing up the road.

Then the men took down the end of the ramp, trapping the demon on the mountain.

They carried the stones into the village to rebuild the houses. We gathered in the centre of the village, lit a great fire to feast: dates soaked in sweet wine, cheese sharp and salty spread on flat wheat bread, tomatoes dried and sweet wrapped around greasy chunks of spit-roasted goat.

I ate until I thought my stomach would burst. My mother did not slap me the whole night. When the music started, the old men and women got up and pranced around on the packed dirt. I saw Pali looking at me, and ran off into the night.

When spring came Pali asked me to marry him. I said no. My father beat me. I ran out into the street, and vowed never to go home again.

His mother met with Jehona’s mother, and when the olive flowers cloaked the trees in new white, Pali and Jehona stood together under the crossed boughs. I watched from the lane, while the thorn burrowed into me so deep that I knew it would never come out. My mother stopped speaking to me entirely.

The demon waits on top of the mountain. Some people carry gifts to it, wheat bread and dried meats and soft, sticky date cakes, to lay at its feet. It does not eat, but it points its tubes at us, and thanks us with rapid puffs of air.

I go up sometimes and sit beneath its shadow, on the days when I am not welcome anywhere, and eat the offerings. I don’t steal books anymore. The thorn is too sharp now, cuts me on the inside until the bile and blood rise into my throat and choke me. Sometimes Jehona comes to the base of the mountain and calls to me, her voice echoing off the stone, her belly growing round under her dress. If the bread is set and rising she will climb the mountain to sit beside me, and we watch the falcons hunting over the rocky plains below. From here the horizon blurs into the sky, endless, harsh, dry, and I wonder why anyone would chose this place as their home. The demon is trapped here, but seems content. It has not moved since.

I am always moving. I am ready to make my own trail, out along the road that leads away from the village. Then Jehona holds my hand, and I think I will stay a little while more. Unlike the demon, I am not trapped here. I can leave whenever I want.

© 2018 Meryl Stenhouse

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