By Amy Tibbetts
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Aleem anchored his dhow in the cove and paddled to shore on a coracle of goat-hide. Small fishing boats, their sails furled, lay on the narrow white beach. Beyond, goats rambled over the hillside amid olive trees and clumps of tough grasses.
Leaving the coracle on the beach, Aleem climbed the well-worn path up the hill. Behind him the sea glittered calm and blue. Already the sun burned overhead and his beard dripped sweat. At the top of the hill he re-wrapped his headscarf, mopping his brow with the sleeve of his robe. The view gave him pause; he hadn’t realized how close the desert came to the coast here.
Before him, the hill sloped down and met the sand. Grass and low trees gave way to dunes and dry gulches. Golden drifts rippled into the horizon, shimmering with heat. In the far distance, outcrops of bare black rock jutted from the sand as if the earth had been burned away and its bones exposed.
For Yenna this must be hard country, Aleem speculated, or for anyone who has to scrape out a living in these dry hills, wedged between the sea and the desert. Yet people will farm and herd wherever the gods allow. A few more steps down the lee side of the hill brought him to his sister’s village, a cluster of round low houses made of baked earth.
Which house is Yenna’s? Aleem wondered, wishing he had come to visit her before she felt the need to send for his help.
He started to approach the central dwelling to introduce himself to the headman, when he realized something was wrong. Though it was midday, no women were cooking at the hearths outside their doors, and no children played on the dusty slope. No shepherds tended the goats on the hillside.
Yet he saw no signs of a recent uttuk raid. There was no destruction, nothing burning. No bizarre, over-large weapons had been discarded – uttuk could carry many hooked blades and cudgels on their broad green backs, and they dropped broken weapons as they fought. Common folk usually feared to touch them and left them where they lay, but Aleem saw none.
He had not fully understood the message Yenna had sent him by sea-trader, only that she needed his help. Because Yenna could not read or write, they had communicated over the years with drawings on cloth. Her recent message was a long roll of brown cloth marked with sketches of a raid on her village: monstrous uttuk advancing on little round houses. But Yenna had inked signs for the passing of moons, so Aleem knew it had happened months ago.
Squinting in the sun, Aleem could see palm fronds and goats’ hooves hanging over the curtained doorways, charms to keep evil from crossing the threshold. Faces were watching him from the square windows cut in the houses’ earthen walls.
A woman of late middle years emerged from the central dwelling and approached him. She wore the red headscarf of a midwife, in vivid contrast to her plain brown robe. Her bronze skin was leathery from sun and age, and one of her hands was wrapped in a grimy bandage.
“You are Yenna’s brother?” she asked. “She said her brother would come. But you are too late. Yenna did not survive.” The midwife gestured down the slope of the hill toward the outer limits of the village, at the beginning of the desert, where a red birthing tent stood by itself, its ropes sagging.
“How long ago?” Aleem asked. He fought against the dreadful wave that washed over him. He had not seen his little sister since her wedding six years ago. It’s not so far across the arm of the sea – why have I never made the trip?
“She died last night, but the birthing pangs began almost two days ago. I have not seen such a long and hard birthing in some years.”
I am sorry, Yenna, though Aleem. I came as quickly as I could.
The midwife seemed to be waiting for something, some reaction from him. Aleem did not understand why her lips were pinched in a frown. Have I done something to offend her? What is wrong in this village? He could not think clearly; grief was squeezing the air from his chest, twisting his stomach into knots. My sister is gone. She will never climb trees in the orchard with me, never watch the horizon for caravans making their way to the river. He wanted to wail like a lost child.
“Excuse my abruptness,” said the midwife, but her voice did not soften. “My name is Umaya, and I am headwoman while the men are gone. So I say you must take care of — everything.” She pointed at the tent again. “I have left your sister’s body untended.”
Umaya held up her bandaged hand. “It bit me.”
His sister’s cryptic message made sense to him at last. Aleem bowed his head.
“It lives still?” he asked.
The complete version of “Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” appears in Black Gate 13.