I picked up the flask and held the nipple near his mouth. “Listen, you stupid thing, we’re going to eat you if you don’t learn how to feed, and I hate young meat.” I scowled at the goat in my lap. Could I find an old goat skin or something to cover myself, so the goats didn’t hurt me when I had to take care of them? The dairy woman had a skirt she wore to protect herself from the goats.
I curled my lip, still feeling grumpy, as the nasty beast in my lap finally began to suckle. I’d been cross in the house, so I got sent up to the goat enclosure to feed this stupid animal. Anyway, I’d had good reason to be angry. Papa was trying to get rid of me.
Grandmama is the local healer. She’d been called out to tend to one of the Hosh children who had a cough. They all always had coughs or injuries—all ten of them.
Mama was in the high pasture delivering triplets. Why was it that the T’Vuns’ goats dropped triplets? They already had more goats than the rest of the village put together.
Anyway, Papa told me to fetch the water, then grind the beans, then take some cheese to Mama T’Vun. That was when I blew up. “I already fetched the water. The buckets are full. The beans are ground, and I won’t go near the T’Vun house because I will not marry Young T’Vun. I’d rather marry Young C’Tis even if he has nothing. He’s ten times better than Young T’Vun.”
I’d never really marry Young C’Tis. That family wasn’t lucky and they were very poor, which is what made my threat so insulting to the wealthy T’Vun family.
Papa didn’t try to remind me that Young C’Tis had a woman. Everybody knew she’d left and wasn’t coming back, leaving him with a new baby to care for. Papa said, “H’Na, go get the injured goat and give him some fresh milk from the big crock.”
I stomped off. Why was my papa so eager to get rid of me? Mrs. T’Vun had asked for me to live with them twice since I became a woman, but Mama had put her off saying I was needed at home. Mama didn’t want me to leave. It was Papa.
The goat in my arms fell asleep. Baby goats aren’t so bad when they’re sleeping. I laid him on a bed of fresh straw and stood. Blood still trickled from the cut on my stomach. I’d need to clean it and stop the bleeding, or the cut would fester.
Movement at the pass caught my eye. Perhaps Young C’Tis was coming for milk for his baby. I watched. No. The grey head of Old C’Tis emerged around the rock. I scowled. Old C’Tis had wrapped a bit of goat skin around his hips. Was he injured? Did I need to fetch Grandmama? I didn’t see signs of blood, and he had been able to climb the mountain. Maybe he just had a bit of pain in his joints and thought that would help. Old people had funny ideas like if you wrapped your legs in goat skin you could run and jump like a goat. I knew that was nonsense. I’d let Grandmama finish her work at the Hoshs’ house.
Needing to tend my cut, I made my way into Grandmama’s herb garden. I’d need something to stop the bleeding, then something to hold the sides of the cut together. A row of tall plants Grandmama used for digestive troubles blocked most of my view of the path.
As I found the leaves I wanted, I saw Old C’Tis pause and hold back a branch. I thought maybe he had someone with him, but no, from what I could see through the leaves of a willow, it was a strange creature—perhaps a new breed of goat? I held the cleansing leaves to my wound as I bent down to pick the lichen that would stop the bleeding. I could see the lower half of the thing with C’Tis. It walked on two legs like a person, but its hind feet were black. The hooves had no toes. The legs were long and blue. The thing had a black stripe around its middle. I tilted my head trying to make sense of what I saw, then my burning skin drew my attention back to my wound.
I wanted to follow and look at the thing with Old C’Tis, but my cut demanded immediate attention.
As I walked back to our house all I could see of the strange thing was the top of its head. It stood taller than Old C’Tis. The top of its head was mottled blue. I really wanted to touch its skin, but that would be rude. I saw Papa and Old T’Vun working in the fields. They pretended not to see Old C’Tis with his strange creature. I wondered if looking at something belonging to Old C’Tis would bring bad luck. He’d been very unlucky.
I pondered the nature of luck as I returned to the house. Why did everything Old C’Tis touched die, while the T’Vuns’ goats dropped healthy triplets? Luck wasn’t very fair. It wasn’t fair that I got hurt obeying my papa, and taking care of a helpless creature. It wasn’t fair that Young C’Tis’s wife left him. She’d been from outside the mountains, and Grandmama said that happens with people from outside. They’re different from us.
I glanced out the front door toward the path. Old C’Tis must be going to the dairy woman for milk. Maybe he intended to trade his strange creature for milk for the baby. If they made a trade, then I could sneak into the dairy woman’s shed and touch this thing.
I finally got most of my bleeding stopped, then poked through grandmama’s supplies to find some sap to hold the sides of the cut together. The sticky stuff from the scrubnut bush helped to protect a cut, but it was sticky. By tomorrow, I’d have a line of seeds, goat hair, dirt, and leaves across my stomach. I’d have to clean the wound again. Grandmama insisted that wounds must be kept clean.
Once I had my skin glued back together, I decided I’d go looking for Grandma at the Hoshs’ house. The oldest Hosh girl, N’Ra, was my age. We were friends, or rather comrades, in our resistance to marrying Young T’Vun. With so many children in their family, something exciting was always happening at the Hoshs’ house.
I broke into a run, arriving at the door of the Hoshs’ house just as Grandmama was putting her medicines back in her bag. “Grandmama, I’ve finished all my chores. Is there something else you want me to do?”
Grandmama glanced sideways at me. “Why don’t you stay here and help N’Ra. Her mama has enough to do to take care of Young Hosh.”
I gave Grandmama a hug. She knew I wanted to visit with N’Ra. I sat beside my friend and took the bowl of beans she was grinding into flour from her hands. “You’re lucky to get to grind beans. I had to feed a baby goat. Look how he bruised my arm, and he cut me open with his hoof.” I displayed my bruise and cut for N’Ra’s inspection. Her younger sisters crowded close and ooohed and ahhhed over my injuries. I smiled at the two little girls.
I waited until Mama Hosh went outside before I brought up the subject that piqued my curiosity. “Did you see Old C’Tis today?”
“No. I went up the creek to pick leaves for my brother. Did he come to clean the dairy woman’s barn?”
The two little girls crowded close and interrupted each other to tell me their story. “We saw him.” The older one grabbed my bruised arm for attention.
“We saw him.” The younger one echoed. I remembered when she was born and was somewhat surprised she could talk so well at her age.
She said, “He had a pet bird with him.”
The older sister who was less than a year older said, “No, it wasn’t a bird, it was a goat.”
“It was huge.” They said together.
N’Ra sat beside me and molded bean flour and water into cakes to be fried for their dinner. I tried to add what I knew to the story. “I was in the herb garden and didn’t get a good look at it, but I saw its feet. They were black and it didn’t have toes or claws.”
The little girls sat on the floor and watched out the doorway. The younger said, “It was a pretty bird.”
The older got in her sister’s face. “I heard it. It sounded almost like a person, but I couldn’t make out any words.”
I decided to tell them a story. “Once a big grey and green bird had a nest in a tree in our upper pasture. I swear that thing sounded just like my Mama calling me, “H’Na, H’Na.” I’d go home only to find everybody out working and Mama hadn’t called me. The bird was a trickster. Maybe this bird is a trickster. Such a strange looking thing must be full of tricks.”
Screams and cries prevented me from telling another story about tricksters. I set the beans down and followed N’RA to the door. The little girls had bolted ahead of us and ran down the path to meet their brothers. H’Kun and H’Ka were half carrying H’Ree who was kicking and screaming his head off worse than a baby goat.
N’Ra and I ran to meet the boys. H’Kun shouted the problem to us. “He stepped on some Demon’s Heads.”
Their mama came behind me. “How many times have I told you not to take the little ones into the upper pasture where those things grow? His feet are too tender for stepping on those things.”
H’Ka explained. “We didn’t. These were in the lower pasture, right by the gate.”
N’Ra took her younger brother in her arms, and he quieted down enough that we could hear Papa Hosh. “You boys, go get a digging stick and get those thorns out of that pasture. Be sure to get all the root.”
I looked up from examining H’Ree’s foot. “Bring me the roots. I’ll take them home to Grandmama. We can use them for wounds that fester.” I looked back at the injured foot. “I think I can get these out, so we won’t have to bother Grandmama.”
N’Ra carried her crying brother into their house, putting him down on the floor close to the fire.
I held the foot with the savage thorns in it in my lap. “The trick to getting these out is to unscrew them. They’re barbed so pulling them straight out just makes them cling tighter.” I set to work. To distract H’Ree I asked, “Did you see the big bird Old C’Tis had with him?”
He wiggled with excitement, causing me to drop his foot. He was as squirmy as a baby goat. “It wasn’t a bird. It was a demon. It was all red in the face, and it tricked the dairy woman out of two pitchers of milk.”
N’Ra held her brother’s foot still while I worked. I asked, “Why do you think it was a demon?”
H’Ree said, “Its face was red. Its skin was blue, and it tricked the dairy woman.”
I smiled. “Yes. I guessed it was a trickster, but that doesn’t make it a demon.”
N’Ra’s mama returned, scolding over her shoulder at her oldest son. “I don’t care if you’ve stopped coughing for now. You hold that cup under your nose and breathe that steam until it stops steaming, then I’ll heat it up until it steams again.” She shook her head, then looked at us. “How many thorns did he pick up? I swear those things spring up overnight.”
I answered, “I got one out. This one is almost out, and I see two more. Grandmama has something to rub on the foot to stop the pain.
Papa Hosh came to the door and interrupted us. “Well, we have news. Old C’Tis’s granddaughter has returned from a convent—whatever that is. He brought her up here, and she gave the dairy woman a blessed wrist band so she’ll have good fortune.”
The gorge rose up in my throat, remembering the strange creature with Old C’Tis. Was that thing really his granddaughter? “What happened to her that she looked so deformed? She doesn’t have toes, and her feet are black like they were burned.” I thought about the charred remains of the C’Tis house. Had this girl been inside when the fire started?
Mrs Hosh shook her head. “I’ve been so busy with Young Hosh. He could hardly breathe. I only got a brief look at her.”
H’Ree finally forgot about the pain in his foot. “I saw her face. It was red like tree bark at sunrise.”
Mr. Hosh said from the door, “Aye, I saw her too. Walked with her head down and kept her face hidden, she did.” He looked at N’Ra and myself. “You two be nice to her no matter what horrible thing happened to her and no matter what she looks like. Getting his girl back is the first decent thing that has happened to Old C’Tis since the fever came.”
I waited until N’Ra’s parents went out again then leaned closer to her. “Maybe we can get T’Vun to marry her.”
N’Ra snorted. “Seems like she’s had enough trouble in this world without being burdened with T’Vun.”
“You’re kinder than I am. Still, I think this is a sign that things are going to change. Maybe neither of us will have to marry T’Vun.”
“I hope so.”
That night I went to bed full of excitement that things were changing.
The night sky was filled with light and smoke from the flames consuming the C’Tis house. Standing outside the house, I heard the the cries of a baby. I watched Papa C’Tis, who looked just like Young C’Tis, run into the flames then emerge covered in fire himself. He fell at my feet dropping the bundle he carried. The baby’s feet were burned and blackened. I watched as the toes fell off, being nothing more than ash. The baby’s face was burned fire red. Old C’Tis pushed me aside and grabbed up the baby, wrapping it in a goat skin. “I’ll take her to the convent.” He ran down the mountain.
Grandmama said. “It is a sign. Change is coming.”
I woke up covered in sweat and sick to my stomach from my dream. I could smell smoke. Papa came in from outside. “The goats are safely locked up for the night.”
Mama answered, “The wild dogs sounded closer than usual. Should we build up our fire?”
Grandmama said. “No need to waste fuel. They may be high up in the mountains, but their cries are carrying down the valleys.” She was silent, then opened the door to look outside. “Aye, when the wild dogs cry like that it’s a sign that change is coming.”
The next morning, I saw Young Hosh with N’RA carrying buckets to fetch water from the spring. He never helped her carry water, so I knew something was happening. I grabbed our buckets. One still had some water, so I sloshed that over the front step to wash down the dust and met the others at the trail.
Young Hosh had a plan. “I figure that if we hurry with our chores, we can sneak out and go down to the big rock above Old C’Tis’s place and get a look at that strange girl.”
The plan sounded good to me. “If we all go to the pass together, we’ll get caught.” I looked at Young Hosh. “Why don’t you take the water to the workers in the fields then meet us at the pass?”
N’Ra volunteered. “Papa’s been nagging me for days to take some wool over to the T’Vun house. I can drop that off and meet you at the pass from there.”
My part of the plan was the weakest. “I guess I can take our goat with the sore leg for a walk on the trail. He follows me everywhere now. I’ll just walk on the trail and stop to check his leg every so often.”
The plan almost worked. Young Hosh made it to the pass without anybody noticing him. N’Ra delivered the wool. I made a good show of giving the baby goat water at the spring and feeling his leg. I started toward the pass again and the goat followed, bleating his lungs out. “Hush you stupid animal. Go to your mama.”
The animal wasn’t going to his mama and he wouldn’t be quiet. I tried giving him some scrubnut leaves to shut him up. He ate them then let out a bleat and danced down the path in front of me. I made a show of following the animal and trying to examine his leg. Everybody could see me, but they ignored me.
The T’Vun family owned the land right up to the pass, which made it slightly more dangerous reaching our goal. I didn’t like being so close to anywhere Young T’Vun might find me—not that he acted any more eager to marry me than I was to marry him.
N’Ra and Young Hosh were waiting for me when I reached the pass. We slipped around the big rock and ran smack into Young T’Vun.
I let out a squeak and tried to hide behind Young Hosh.
T’Vun ignored me. “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be outside the village.”
I thought quickly and rolled my eyes. “Grandmama sent us to look for more leaves for Hosh’s cough. He has to have some every day.”
Young T’Vun said, “You’re lying. You’re trying to look at Old C’Tis’s granddaughter. I’m telling papa.”
Hosh narrowed his eyes at T’Vun. “What? Is that what you’re doing here? You don’t have any business here, and we do. H’Na is the healer’s daughter, so she’s helping us find the leaves I need for my cough, and N’Ra is supposed to carry them home. We have a good reason to be here, but you don’t.”
I nodded and echoed Hosh’s words. “Grandmama, cough, leaves.”
N’Ra picked at a scab on her hip. “I was gathering leaves yesterday and didn’t see LooCee. What does she look like?”
T’Vun opened and closed his mouth. Finally, he pushed past us. “I’m telling papa that you’re here.”
I shrugged and looked toward the spring where the creek that fed C’Tis’s land was hidden by weeds. The baby goat that had followed me had already discovered the fresh greens growing by the water and was nibbling away. I pointed. “There. If we look there, we might find some of the right kind of leaves.”
T’Vun pushed past us calling, “Papa, H’Na, N’Ra and Young Hosh are trying to sneak down to Old C’Tis’s house to look at his granddaughter.”
The three of us dashed for the spring and were innocently sorting through the weeds when Papa T’Vun found us. “All of you, go home. This is Old C’Tis’s land and you’ll get sick just being here. It’s unlucky. Bad spirits hide in this place.”
Defeated, we turned toward home. I shrugged. “I’ll tell Grandmama we didn’t find any leaves.”
N’Ra kept to our story. “The ground here isn’t as wet as it was where I was picking yesterday. Maybe that plant needs wet ground.”
Papa T’Vun followed each of us to our houses. He told Grandmama. “I caught H’Na outside the pass. She and that Hosh girl were trying to see Old C’Tis’s granddaughter.”
I countered, “N’Ra thought maybe there would be leaves for Young Hosh’s cough near the spring there. We were looking for leaves.”
Grandmama skewered me with her eyes. “They don’t grow there this time of year. You’ll have to wait until after the rains come, then we’ll trade some cheese for the leaves. Now, go put that goat in the pen with his mama, then I want you to card some wool.”
I didn’t hate carding wool as much as I hated feeding baby goats.
Finally, after two days of burning curiosity about the new girl, the Shaman called a village meeting. Our meeting place was a circle of stones set in the hillside above the spring. On our way to the meeting, I tried to beg Papa to ask the questions I wanted answered. “Ask him about Old C’Tis’s granddaughter. Has she been in a fire? Why are her feet black? Why doesn’t she have toes? Why is her face so red? What is wrong with her skin that it’s blue?”
Papa kept walking without saying anything to me.
The shaman sat at the most important place in the meeting circle. Old T’Vun sat beside the shaman. My grandmother as the healer was the only woman given a rock in the circle. The other women sat behind their husbands or fathers. I was lucky because my mama sat behind her mama right next to the shaman. I sat right behind Papa. I was closer to the shaman than Young T’Vun who sat behind his papa sitting behind Old T’Vun.
The shaman opened the meeting by asking the wind for wisdom, then he rang his bell. When he finished his ritual, the elders, including my papa, responded by shaking their wooden clackers.
Finally, the shaman got down to business. “I visited my friend, Old C’Tis, today. His granddaughter, LooCee has returned to the convent, promising to return. She took the baby with her. The baby will be cared for. Young C’Tis grieves for his child, but LooCee, gave him coins to travel to the city to visit her and the baby. After the harvest, if she hasn’t returned with the baby, I’ll show Young C’Tis how to find his sister and child. This is good. It’s time for the young people to learn about the outside world. C’Tis will be the first to visit outside in two generations.” He droned on about the outside world and about C’Tis having been out once before to find LooCee in her convent. I wiggled my toes. Maybe I could see the outside world. What would it be like? With my luck, it would be filled with goats everywhere.
Grandmama told me the fever that killed the C’Tis family came from outside the mountains. I had visions of dead people laying beside the paths and the village littered with houses that had been burned like the C’Tis house had been to get rid of the fever.
When the shaman finally finished telling us how good it would be for the young people to know about the outside world, my stupid papa sat with his head bowed and didn’t ask any of the questions I’d asked him. I found N’Ra’s eyes then rolled my eyes toward Young T’Vun. If we were to see the outside world, maybe neither of us would have to marry that stupid boy.
N’Ra knew my thoughts. She glanced toward T’Vun then up at the evening sky in agreement. We were not going to marry Young T’Vun.
N’Ra leaned around her mother and poked her papa.
Old Hosh shook his wooden clacker, indicating that he wanted to speak. “About Old C’Tis’s granddaughter. We saw her when she came to our village. It would help the young people to be kind to her if they knew how she got hurt.”
The shaman leaned forward. “Hurt?”
Old Hosh nodded. “Her feet have been burned. She doesn’t have toes. Her skin is blue and grey as if she were dead, and her face is all red.”
The shaman chewed on his lower lip. Sitting as close to him as I was, I could see his eyes crinkled at the corners as if something tickled him. “This is a good time to learn about covering. After the big flood, I lived outside of the mountains for a few years and learned the ways of people outside. There, people cover their bodies with cloth and leather. I was taught that this helps stop the spread of fevers. I wore covering. It protected my skin when I might have gotten a cut, so I didn’t get festers.” He glanced at my grandmama.
Grandmama bowed her head in agreement with his words. Had she ever been outside? Did she know outsider ways?
The shaman took up his lesson again. “Where many people live close together, they don’t know who belongs to whom. They cover their bodies to show which family they belong to. Also, in a convent, the nuns, as they are called, are very careful about covering. They wear only black robes. LooCee covers much like the nuns, but she doesn’t wear black, and her covering shows the shape of her legs. This tells us she is not a nun.”
Old Hosh might be the poorest man in our village, but he might be the best papa. He asked, “Why was her face so red? Does she cover her face too?”
The shaman ran his hand over his mouth and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. “Young LooCee has most probably never seen a man uncovered before. Old C’Tis and Young C’Tis were told she couldn’t come see them if they didn’t cover their loins the whole time she was here. If she was red in the face, it was because she felt uncomfortable about seeing a man uncovered. The important lesson is that if we are to have contact with the outside world, we must respect their customs and religion.” The shaman stopped smiling and grew very stern. “We must never come between others and their spiritual practices. Covering is a spiritual practice in the outside world.”
Hosh furrowed his brow. “But if LooCee comes to live with her grandpapa, will we have to set a watch at the pass to tell us when to cover?”
The shaman held up his bell. “In our own homes and in our own village, we may live as we always have. When we go where the outsiders live, we will do as they do and cover.” He rang his bell. The elders shook their clackers.
I smiled at my toes and wondered if covering my feet like LooCee did would keep them from hurting so much when the stupid goats stepped on me. How could I cover my feet?
Old T’Vun shook his clacker to speak. He sat up straight. “When we go outside our valley, my family will cover.” He turned to his daughter in-law. “My daughter has a robe that came from the outside. She will cover with that when she meets outsiders.”
Mrs T’Vun tilted her head this way and that toward the circle of villagers. A smirk covered her face.
My lip curled. I would never live in the same house as that woman. Someday, I’d travel outside the mountains, seeing new things and when I covered, I’d find something better than Mrs T’Vuns old robe. I glanced at N’Ra. She smiled back at me. We’d have adventures together and learn new stuff. I hoped LooCee would be our friend.