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Nobaira sat on the low bunk, trying to ignore the aches in her chest and lower down. She had no energy left at all. Even her hair, normally a froth of short wild curls, lay limp against her scalp.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
Beside her sat Otima, who was the best cuddler in Itakith. Otima was "slow" and worked as a raiser, so she spent most of her time cuddling babies, but she also cuddled adults when they needed comfort. Right now Nobaira really needed it.
Women had always drawn her attention more than men, but Nobaira was dutiful. Once or twice a year, she spent a month with some man in hopes of caging a bead. It had taken her years to succeed, and this pregnancy would have fulfilled her responsibility to the village for a child of her body -- if it had lived. Instead the babe had been born so twisted that he had sputtered three breaths and then died. After so many deaths in the Itadesh fire, all the villages were struggling to make up the difference, making the loss even more tragic.
Now Nobaira clung to the soft domestic body beside her. Otima rocked and hummed and occasionally said things like, "Everyone feels sad when bad things happen. Someday the feeling will go away. It is like snow in winter. No matter how deep the cold gets, it always melts in spring."
There were no direct references to what had happened. Pregnancies so often ended in sorrow instead of joy that people tiptoed past the subject as if crossing a frozen creek just before spring crackup. The platitudes may have been impersonal, but they helped Nobaira feel less alone in her misery. Such things happened to other women. They would see the new knotted dangle on her necklace and treat her gently while she recovered.
Vriilu arrived then, her steps light but her face solemn. Nobaira dredged up a smile for her age-mate. They had always been close, spending much of their time on the trail together, even though Vriilu liked men as much as women.
"It's good to see you again," Vriilu said to Nobaira. "I just got back to the village yesterday, but you were busy then. Amaqor is planning a scout run to check the ice on the waterways next tenday. I heard from the healers that you should be able to join us after all! I've missed you so much on the trail."
Nobaira's heart sank. She had been dreading this conversation, and it was worse coming when the outcome was still uncertain. "Vriilu ... I might not be able to come after all," Nobaira said, fingering the knot at the center of her necklace where the cage-bead had recently hung. "I've asked the Council of Elders to let me work as a wet-nurse instead of taking more duty-months. If they agree, I'll still need to stay in the village for a few years."
"But why would you do that?" Vriilu said. "You hate domestic work!"
"Food is still short. It's a shame to waste any. Look at me, Vriilu, I'm flooding here," Nobaira said, waving a hand over the blotched bodice of her dress.
Otima clucked her tongue. "I will get you some padding. The healers or midwives should have showed you how to wrap your breasts." She got up to rummage in a basket.
"They tried," Nobaira said, her shoulders hunching. She had smacked the gentle hands away with considerably more force than necessary. Now she felt sticky and awful as a result. "I just wasn't ... ready to be touched."
"Well, here, take off that dirty dress. I can tell you how to do the wrap," said Otima. She held out a clean dress, a long stretchy breast band, and some snowcat felt for padding.
Nobaira shucked off the old dress and let Otima throw it into another basket for washing. The raiser's voice and hands were soft as she taught Nobaira how to take care of lactating breasts. At least the binding made them ache a little less.
"I still don't understand why you would ... I mean, you were so frustrated at getting stuck in the village. I thought you'd be glad to escape sooner than expected," said Vriilu.
"Because if the Elders agree, then after I do this, it will be over," Nobaira said. "I won't have to risk another pregnancy. I'm afraid the same thing might happen again, and that can be dangerous." It was true. Babies made wrong sometimes got stuck, and then the woman died. It wasn't worth risking a healthy woman for the sake of a baby that might or might not even live.
"Same thing?" Vriilu asked.
"The baby was ... not right," Nobaira said, looking away.
"Do you remember," Vriilu said slowly, "last year when the water turned strange colors just off the beach?"
Nobaira could hardly forget. It had featured strongly in her nightmares. "The gatherers who first saw it called for rangers to find out why," she said. "We dove down and discovered those Ancient ruins with a leaking container, and we dragged it ashore to bury so it wouldn't keep fouling the water."
"Sometimes things like that have bad effects," Vriilu said.
"Sometimes, but other times it's because of the mother's body or the father's body," Nobaira said. It could also happen if the parents got sloppy about their ancestry, which had led to a humiliating conversation with the Elders as they grilled her about her close-cousins. In the end it had been confirmed that Nobaira and Kireg were not at all nearly related. "I gave the body to the healers so they could look inside him and see if that would tell them why it happened, but they haven't said anything more to me."
Now it was Vriilu who looked away. Such things were almost never mentioned, but a woman might bring them up with her healer or her age-mates if she chose. It was still a miserable thing to have to discuss.
"Other people should probably be warned," Vriilu said. "I'll talk to the healers and the rangers about changing the markers where we buried the Ancient stuff, and that stretch of beach, to show that they might have contributed to a death."
It was a good idea. The Ancients had left horrors as well as wonders. People often searched their ruins for lost treasures, or even just bits of things that would make nice beads. Nobaira herself had a shiny hex-bead from Tobern.
"Shiny beads aren't worth broken arms," Otima said, an old saying about risk assessment that fit the spirit if not the precise detail of the situation.
Dlaami came into the house, her long silver hair bound in many braids that trailed over her blue tunic like icicles. Nobaira felt relieved. Of all the elders, she was closest to Dlaami, who usually coached adolescents through the adulthood tests and who had a special fondness for rangers-to-be.
"Nobaira, the Council of Elders has reached a decision about your request," said Dlaami. "Will you hear the news alone, or with friends?"
Nobaira tightened her grip on Otima, beckoning to Vriilu with her free hand. Swiftly her age-mate sat beside her, and they all turned their attention to the Elder. "With friends, please," said Nobaira.
"If you nurse babies until your milk dries up or for three years, the Council of Elders agrees to excuse you from further month duties," Dlaami declared. "After that, you will be entitled to enjoy a month at Smokewater Valley."
Nobaira heaved a sigh of relief. Anyone could put a knot in her necklace, or exchange beads only with other shellies, but it was frowned upon to do that for very long. There just weren't enough people, and the villages needed everyone's help to keep the numbers up high enough to survive. But pregnancy wasn't safe or sensible for some women; if the healers and the elders agreed about that, then they would discreetly quash the peer pressure. On the other hand, breastmilk was best for babies, and it might save one who would otherwise have died.
"Thank you so much," Nobaira said fervently. "I never want to do this again!"
"You aren't obligated," Dlaami said. "However, you may change your mind later, and that's all right too." She lifted a hand at Nobaira's sputtering protest. "There is no way to know now, with your body in such a fluster. Your feelings may change, or they may not."
"How would you know, you like men," Nobaira muttered in a truculent tone.
Dlaami touched a dangling knot on her own necklace, its leather cord marked by several red stripes. "See these lines? One for each year I wore my necklace knotted. I thought I was done having babies," she said. Then she shrugged. "But one summer the clouds lifted, and I decided to have another."
"I'm sorry," Nobaira said. "I wasn't thinking ..."
"Forgiven; it's hard to think clearly when you're sore and tired and sad," Dlaami said. "The village is grateful for your offer to feed hungry babies." She turned to leave.
"I'll introduce you to the babies," Otima offered. "I hope you like Timoni. He came early, last tenday, and his mother's milk just would not start. He's not doing very well on snowy-milk either. I think it upsets his tummy."
"Well, let's go find out if he likes my milk better," Nobaira said. She heaved her stiff body off the bunk.
"Does this Timoni need a new blanket?" Vriilu asked. "I'm no good at fancy stitches, but I can knit a straight line. I'll be in the village until we leave to scout the waterways, so I might as well put my hands to work."
Otima smiled. "We can always use more blankets in the child-houses," she said.
The three women left together, Otima on one side of Nobaira and Vriilu on the other, heading toward the child-house where Nobaira would do her duty to the next generation. It was not exactly the contribution she had hoped to make, but it would do. Perhaps Timoni could even ease this wracking sense of loss a little.
Nobaira gathered up her broken hopes and stuffed them firmly into a basket in the back of her mind. She had a job to do.
This is the freebie for the January 2015 Torn World Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from ellenmillion. It also fills the "tragedy" square in my 9-1-14 card for the ladiesbingo fest.
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