When I began writing these posts for Polilla Writes, I thought I would have enough material for about a year, maybe a year and a half. It turns out that I’m much more verbose than I ever dreamed! However, the time has come for me to conclude the “Writing The Third Dimension” series. What a joyous privilege has been mine to write these posts, get to know all of you, and to learn so much from all of you!
This is not good-bye. I’ll be back, commenting on the wonderful posts Lynn, “Polilla,” shares with us all, and from time to time, I’ll drop in with a post about books — mine and those of others.
In this, my closing segment, I thought perhaps you might like to read the second chapter of the novel I’ve been writing during the time I was also writing for Polilla Writes. Sharing stories is one of the great joys of my life. So here’s another story, at least the beginning of a story. I hope you enjoy it!
[Note from Lynn: Please note, the shared segment is COPYRIGHTED, no copying by any method allowed. Thank you.]
BONE FIRE, A Novel of Ancient Europe
Awna the Woman
The earth was frozen less than a hand-length down, so Awna needed only half a morning to chop away the soil and the tree roots to carve out the old man’s grave.
Under the oak trees that spread their autumn-broken leaves against the sky, she used the wide, flat blade of her digging stone to pry up pads of moss. Webbed with the night’s meager snowfall, the moss carried the heavy scent of rich, wet earth, a smell the old man had loved, so Awna layered it as a bed at the bottom of his grave. The size of an eight-winter child, that old man, smaller even than Awna, but she was strong from the years she had spent as his slave, carrying his packs. She easily pulled his body to the hole, her fingers cupped gently over his brittle bones. She lowered him in, feet first, and, when he was lying in the grave, she crouched on the edge as if she might slide down and claim space for herself.
“So Rolf, finally I am free. You could have waited until spring. It would have been easier.”
At least he had died quickly, his hands suddenly fisted against his chest, his teeth clenched, his breath pulsing out in one long hiss. She should not have told him. What was there about that crooked old man that so easily coaxed out the truth even when it was best forgotten?
Sunlight, shredded by the canopy of oaks, cast splintered shadows over Rolf’s pile of trade goods. Perhaps all those things were hers now, being who she was. Perhaps they were not, considering what she had done.
She did not care much about the shell necklaces, the birdbone needles, the small flint darts, the arrowheads, not even the oval bracelets cut in one piece from pearled edges of sea-clam shells. The bags of dried and pounded pot clay? She could dig up more.
Most of all, she wanted his thick fox-pelt blanket. Once, in the summer, when some bird spit a fever into Awna’s head, Rolf had wrapped her in that blanket, and the cool, soft fur chased out her blighted dreams, lured her back into the real and living world.
So what could she take and what should she bury? Would the old man come back to curse her if she did not give him enough? He needed gifts for his ancestors.
Of course, she would not bury the hand-sized flakes of salt sewn into their deerskin packets. If she buried the salt, the earth would leech it away from Rolf’s grave. Perhaps then it would poison the guarding oaks. Why put herself into the middle of that fierce battle?
Always, always, though, that salt had been dearer to him than Awna could ever be, except during the one moment which had killed him.
She gave first what was easiest to give, the flute Rolf had made from the hollow wing bone of a vulture. Rolf had drilled five finger holes into the vulture bone and given it a strange fishlike mouth – pike, not carp — that somehow caught his breath and turned it into the low trembling melodies that only Rolf knew how to make.
She lay flat on her belly at one side of the grave and leaned down, slid that flute into his clutched hands. Some contrary part of her spirit wished for one more night song, firelight dancing. That wish made her eyes burn, so she stood and shook herself loose of the memories. Then she untied her grass cloak, swung it away from her shoulders. She had cut the grass for the cloak and dried it, then stitched it length over length until it hung long enough to reach her ankles. It shed water far better than fox fur ever could. She dropped the cloak into the grave, watched it settle in stiff folds over his beautiful fine-boned face, over his thin crooked legs and large clever hands.
“For you, Rolf, a trade.”
Awna held his fox-pelt blanket close to her mouth, blew into the fur to make it hers. Then, except for the salt, she divided all things between them, gave him half the blades, half the dried meat, half the smoked fish, half the beads and bracelets, half the pot clay, even half of her furred suslik skins, although she herself had caught those tricky ground squirrels, and she herself scraped away the flesh, stretched the small pelts on greenstick hoops, and knuckled soft fat into each flensed side.
When Rolf’s share lay with him in the grave, Awna pushed the forest’s thick, dark dirt over top until the hole was full. She layered leaf mold over the dirt then searched out what stones she could find, those rocks carried high into the forest by the Mother River, one year or another, as that river bucked herself free of winter ice. Awna piled the rocks over the grave so no digging animal could get to the old man.
She brushed the soil from her deerskin tunic and from her leggings. She licked the dirt’s dark stain from the palms of her hands. Would the old man follow her, his spirit given breath by longing? She had buried him so far from his home, traveling as they had been on their last trade journey before winter. Surely he would be restless, even under the comfort of the oaks. She cupped her hands over her belly. Would he try to take her baby now living there?
As small as the cap of an acorn, that baby, as the stem of a cap.
Perhaps Léleks would try to steal it, since she had lost the old man’s protection. Those deadly Léleks, twisted spirits, offspring of lost curses.
The wind sent its edged breath deep into her lungs, making her cough. Winter. Too close.
Always, since her mother sold her, Awna had only followed. How does a follower learn to walk her own path?
She leaned close to the grave, spoke loudly so Rolf could hear her through the stone and earth. “So what should we do, this baby and me? We cannot live outside in winter. Would you let me return to your house and use it as my own?”
A long journey that would be, but better than spending winter’s hard, cold days alone in an oak forest.
As if Rolf had traveled back to answer her, underbrush snapped and voices came from just beyond the stand of oaks. Awna crouched low and small, raked her fingers through her hair until the dark curls fell forward to cover her face. Her breath squeezed in so shallow that her acorn-baby lifted a thin cry of protest from her belly. But as she peeked through her hair, she saw those noisy ones walk into the oak clearing and realized they were just ordinary men.
Dark of hair and eyes they were, as are all people. Two carried a dead boar, hung by its legs from a sapling they balanced on their shoulders, an old boar, blood dripping black from age-stained tusks. The third man, although muscled thick in his arms and shoulders, carried nothing but throwing-spears, cradling them as if he were a woman holding a baby.
The three men stopped and stared at Awna, and the one holding the spears opened his mouth, ready to speak, but said nothing. His hair and beard had grown into a tumble of ringlets; his eyes were large and his ears. He shifted his gaze to the packs jumbled in a heap against the nearest oak. Then he pointed at the grave and asked, “A child?”
Awna pushed her hair back from her face and stood up. “No. He was old.” Why tell them more than that?
The spear-carrier turned and spoke to the others, and he spoke with such a wide swinging rhythm that Awna’s ears were not quick enough to catch all his words. Dried blood marked the men’s faces as if they had used it for paint, and their wide belts bristled with flint-blade knives.
So what was best, she asked herself, to pretend she had people waiting for her? Or should she try to find a place with these three men?
She did not want them to think the old man’s packs were theirs to take, so she walked to the pile and slung the largest on her back. The smaller ones she tied to her belt, and she hung the packets of salt from her shoulders. Slow she was, doing all this, but the men stood and watched. She tied the fox-pelt blanket around her waist. When she had taken all there was to take, she stared down at Rolf’s grave, wondering if she would hear his high, thin voice scolding her for greed, but he said nothing.
Awna pulled in a breath and was sure she could smell the moss of his sunken bed. So how terrible would it be if she and her acorn-baby were killed and left in this good place? They would be safe from winter. Everyone knew the dead did not feel the cold.
She pulled a small chert blade from her belt and cut a few stitches at the top edge of a greased packet, lifted it so the men could see the hand-size flake of salt inside. Then she waited for them to kill her, salt being more precious than any woman’s life could ever be.
The one who carried the spears stepped close and pinched the edge of the salt. He licked his fingers and looked at the other two men, shifting foot to foot under the weight of the dead boar. The salt-taster laughed, a low troubled sound, as if suddenly he had something to worry about.
“Where are you going?” he asked Awna, his words slow enough that she understood.
She pointed east and then south.
He said: “My village is close.”
Of course, their village was close. Men did not carry a dead boar, dripping blood, any great distance. Wolves, dogs, soft-pawed mountain lions would catch the scent. In near-winter, those animals would be glad for the meat, even of an old bitter-flesh boar.
“My village is not close,” she said, trying to match the rhythm of his words. She was a fool to admit she had no protection near, but her back ached and her arms, and she had blistered her hands digging that grave. Inside, she felt so empty that she wondered if her soul had stayed down there with Rolf. Why not give the salt-taster greater reason to kill her? Better to have the pain over soon than waste more time listening to his high-singing words.
Awna breathed in one last smell of moss and earth and oak. She would be a part of it whether these three buried her or simply left her body for whatever animal found it first. Be strong, she told her acorn-baby, and she tilted back her head, so the man could see the long vein at the side of her neck. “Quickly,” she told him.
He set the butts of the spears on the ground, braced them in the crook of his left arm. He ran his thumb down the length of her pulsing vein, and Awna pulled her thoughts into that warm, dark world where her acorn-baby lived.
The man caught a handful of her hair and tugged gently until she lifted her head to look into his eyes. His voice was little more than a whisper when he said, “My name is Cob. I need a wife.”
copyright, 2015, Sue Harrison
So this is not Good-Bye, only Fare Thee Well, and Thank You
More than Words can ever Say.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah!
Strength to your pen!