Asha and the Washerwoman’s Baby: A Short Story

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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s different tales.

Author’s Note: I’m unable so as to add photos to the publish as a consequence of a technical downside. I made a decision to publish it with out photos for now (old fashioned type! – identical to a guide) and I’ll add photos later, inshaAllah.

An exiled neanderthal lady encounters the aftermath of a battle between her personal individuals and a band of contemporary people, and is confronted with a horrible resolution.

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MIDDLE PALEOLITHIC ERA (100,000 YEARS AGO)
WESTERN EDGE OF THE ARABIAN PENINSULA

The Washerwoman’s Sound

Asha hid within the shadows of the juniper bushes, watching the Slender Ones throughout the river. Most had been on the opposite facet of an increase, however a girl squatted within the shallows, washing hides. The washerwoman’s pores and skin was black and hairless, not like Asha’s, which was tan coloured and furry. Asha remembered being repelled the primary time she’d seen Slender Ones, with their small eyes and easy faces, missing the protruding jaw and forehead ridge that Asha carried. They’d appeared deformed, as if their heads had been left within the solar too lengthy and had shrunk.

Since then she had watched many bands of Slender Ones coming ashore from the shallow Western Sea, which supplied quite a few land bridges at low tide. Over time she’d gotten used to their appearances. They had been a unique sort of individuals, that was all, simply as elephants or ravens had been completely different, but nonetheless individuals.

As the washerwoman labored, she made a magical sound together with her mouth, inflicting her voice to rise and fall rhythmically. Asha had no phrases for it, as her individuals – the Old Ones – didn’t make such sounds. It was mesmerizing.

She’d been monitoring this band since they got here ashore. Fat Deer had as soon as informed her that Slender Ones had been crossing the Western Sea for 3 generations, wading throughout at low tide. They had been vicious, and all the time killed Old Ones on sight, or so the tales stated. Asha had her doubts. Still, it was silly to get so close to. But she was stressed and so lonely that she generally felt it as a bodily factor, choking her.

Also, these individuals had been fascinating. Unlike her personal individuals, whose cultural taboos and inflexible pondering annoyed Asha deeply, the Slender Ones had been ingenious. They carried stone-tipped weapons and lava knives, transported water in gourds and meals in pouches, and moved from place to put.

Asha herself had conceived of many of those improvements, and had been consistently chastised by Fat Deer. At the age of seven summers she advised that the clan transfer to greater floor in summer time, to get pleasure from cooler climate and keep away from depleting native meals sources. Fat Deer countered that they may run out of water alongside the way in which. Asha identified they might carry water in gourds. But that was taboo, since carrying water would anger the river gods.

River gods. Hah. Even as a fledgling lady she’d scoffed at such concepts. She may see together with her personal eyes that water fell from the sky, gathered within the mountains, and bumped into the rivers. When the winter was moist, the river was greater. If an individual was silly and swam when the water was excessive, he would possibly drown. If Asha wished to catch a fish, she would silently dangle her arm within the cool shallows underneath some tree roots… These had been all predictable pure processes. What did imaginary gods must do with any of it?

Asha’s Na – her mom – begged her to cease talking of this stuff. The clanspeople had been rolling their eyes in worry at Asha’s strangeness, and Na feared they may crush Asha’s head between two rocks.

One summer time, after discovering a damaged obsidian knife left behind by a Slender One, Asha taught herself to make one, secretly. It took many tries. She may form the obsidian by putting it with a bit of sandstone. But each time she reached the ultimate stage of sharpening the sting, the factor fractured. Finally she had the concept of stress flaking it – merely pushing gently on it with the sandstone, stroking it to create a sharper edge. It labored. From then on she carried the blade beneath her furs, strung round her waist. Let anybody attempt to kill her. They’d be in for a shock.

In the top, quite than crush her head, her individuals merely exiled her, letting Na dwell and stay with the clan as a part of the discount.

That had been three summers in the past. Now she was ten fingers and two summers previous, residing alone in a small cave within the lip of a crater, simply above a salt pond. Her Na had since died of a losing illness, and there was nobody she cared about anymore. She was totally alone, with nobody to speak to however the wind, and nobody to answer however her personal busy thoughts.

Animal gods

Asha took a step ahead, wanting to listen to the washerwoman’s sound extra clearly. Her spear caught on a department, making the leaves rustle. The washerwoman appeared up sharply.

Knowing she’d been noticed, Asha smiled and waved. Perhaps the lady wouldn’t increase the alarm. Perhaps she would see that Asha was an individual identical to her.

I do know I’m formed otherwise, Asha wished to say. But I’m such as you, don’t you see? I carry a spear, a knife and a pouch. I feel such as you, I act such as you. Don’t betray me.

The washerwoman stared. Asha’s individuals prayed to Deer, and if Asha had believed in such issues she would have known as upon Deer in that second, asking for the lady to actually see her. But she had by no means believed within the animal gods.

Once, earlier than her exile, she’d been foraging with Na. Msha was a child then, and Na had left her behind with a sister-na named Blue Lips. They got here throughout a dying deer that had been badly mauled. Na learn the bottom and stated {that a} cave hyena had mauled the deer and snatched its calf, leaving the mom to die. Na stated a prayer to the deer, then killed it in an act of kindness. Deer Clan didn’t eat deer meat, in order that they left the carcass to rot.

“Why?” Asha requested, “couldn’t the deer protect herself? Isn’t she a god?”

“Her dream self is a god,” Na replied. “But her body is not.”

“Then why do we pray to Deer for good foraging, and to bring rain? Can the dream self do that?”

But Na solely informed her to hush, and by no means to ask such questions, particularly the place others may hear. Asha knew that every one the clans worshiped animal gods, however she vowed in that second that she would by no means worship a creature that bled like her, and couldn’t save its personal offspring from dying.

Worms, Snails and Pears

The washerwoman shouted, pointing. Two hunters hustled over the rise and charged throughout the river. Their intent was clear.

Asha pale into the forest. She knew these paths, and was mild on her toes. The hunters would by no means catch her. Indeed, inside a short while, discovering no hint, they gave up and returned. Asha waited, resting within the shade of the undergrowth, then returned to the river. It was a silly factor to do, she knew. But curiosity burned together with her just like the embers of a clan hearth.

The Slender Ones had been gone. Standing amid the crushed grass and litter of the Slender Ones’ deserted campground, Asha studied their tracks. They had been following the course of the river, transferring towards the foothills. This was not good. If the Slender Ones continued like this, they’d encounter the squat of Asha’s former individuals, Deer Clan. The assembly could be disastrous. Deer Clan possessed no weapons however stones and crude golf equipment, whereas the newcomers carried knives and stone-tipped spears. Deer Clan could be massacred.

So what, she thought bitterly. It’s not my downside.

She spent the afternoon foraging for nuts on the banks of a quiet tributary of the bigger river. She beloved hazelnuts, however would have been pleased with beechnuts or earth nuts. In the stream financial institution she appeared for mussels, beetle larvae, or newts. A fats frog got here shut sufficient to catch, however she was removed from house, with no hearth, and she or he didn’t like uncooked frog, so she let it go. She discovered worms, insect larvae, and several other snails, all of which she promptly ate.

She generally discovered berries within the silty soil. These had been prized treats. As she foraged, she discovered herself attempting to mimic the washerwoman’s mouth sounds. The girl had been talking phrases, however altering her vocal tone and drawing the phrases out. “I aaaaaaam a girl,” Asha experimented. “All aloooooooone in this wooooooooorld. But I don’t neeeeeed anyone.” Tears got here to her eyes and she or he wiped them away bitterly. What a ineffective try. Her sounds weren’t something just like the washerwoman’s.

She went again to foraging, and shortly discovered a stunted pear tree that bore some small fruit. She devoured three pears on the spot, letting the juices run down her chin. Sated, she stuffed a couple of extra fruits into her shoulder pouch.

She knew what she needed to do, although she didn’t wish to do it. With a sigh, she washed her palms and face, utilized recent mud to her pores and skin, and set off towards Deer Clan’s squat.

People of the Deer

The Slender Ones had been following the river, which might deliver them to Deer Clan’s territory in three days. Asha as a substitute went straight over Rhino Ridge, and arrived after sundown, the place she discovered the clan gathered round a hearth by the cave mouth. The hunters had alighted with rabbits and fish, for her individuals didn’t have the means or information to kill ibexes. She may have supplied to show them, since she had realized to take action herself since her exile. But they’d by no means settle for that information.

They had been her individuals within the sense that they appeared like her. Heavily muscled our bodies, tan skins, distinguished forehead ridges with receding foreheads. Light coloured eyes, and a few with hair the colour of straw or hearth. Normal individuals. Her individuals. Yet her thoughts was so completely different from theirs. Ideas got here to her like fireflies within the darkness. Try this, they stated. There is a greater approach. She questioned every little thing, and this frightened the Old Ones, for they had been a individuals of custom, putting their footsteps exactly on the paths left by generations of ancestors. Why was she so completely different? She didn’t know.

“Greetings to the people of the deer,” Asha known as out. “For they do not stumble…”

“And do not kill without cause,” two or three voices replied within the ritual approach.

Asha noticed Fat Deer peering in her course. He was a grizzled previous man, white-haired and bow-legged, his bone-colored beard hanging to his chest. He was additionally her grandfather. “Who is there?” he known as.

She stepped into the sunshine. Many of the clan gasped. Two hunters hefted their golf equipment. To Fat Deer’s credit score, his face remained emotionless. “You are not welcome, little demon. Go to your haunts.”

“I came to tell you that a band of Slender Ones approaches. I suggest you flee.”

“Why do you care?”

Why did she care? “I have no one else,” she stated finally. “And shouldn’t a granddaughter care for her grandfather?” With that she pale into the darkness. She’d carried out her responsibility.

Firelight and Cave Paintings

Later, in her personal cave, she constructed the banked coals into a hearth. Her individuals didn’t know the right way to make hearth, and will solely protect it. Asha had questioned if there is perhaps a approach to create hearth, and greater than as soon as she’d singed her eyebrows and burned her fingers as she transferred hearth from one stick to a different, peering carefully at it, attempting to decipher the key of its nature, to no avail. So she all the time took nice care to maintain at the very least a couple of coals burning.

The firelight shadows took the types of her Na and her little sister Msha. She remembered Na’s giant blue eyes, her calloused palms washing Asha’s hair within the river, the warmth of her thick physique, even the style of her milk. And Msha – her perpetual sense of duty, all the time chastising Asha for her recklessness.

Msha’s dying had been the catalyst that spurred Asha’s exile. Not her dying because it was, however what Asha did that day. When she noticed the hyena rending Msha’s physique, she leaped upon it, stabbing it within the neck together with her knife. She was badly injured, however she killed the beast. She couldn’t save Msha, nonetheless, because the hyena had torn one of many little lady’s legs off on the knee.

Asha’s individuals had been horrified and frightened. It was not solely that the making of a knife was taboo, however {that a} baby of eight summers had slaughtered a cave hyena. That was the purpose at which they determined she should be a demon or a god.

So now even she was a god. She snorted in disgust. Well, overlook the Old Ones. She didn’t want them. For three summers she’d fed and clothed herself, even bringing down ibexes on her personal. She informed herself, as she had numerous occasions earlier than, that she was sturdy. She may bear this lonely existence. The nights, although… these solitary nights on this cave, with nothing however the firelight and shadows. The nights galled her, making her really feel insignificant, and giving the mislead her claims of self-sufficiency. The considered a lifetime of such nights terrified her.

Looking on the shadow shapes on the cave wall, she remembered Roshin, Deer Clan’s most gifted painter. Using purple and yellow ochre, the identical substances that Deer Clan used to guard their pores and skin from insect bites, Roshin created wonderful scenes on the stone partitions of the cave. With solely his fingers, he created lifelike representations of ibexes, lions, baboons, and Old Ones themselves. Some within the clan grew to become afraid, believing that the pictures would possibly come to life, so Fat Deer made him cease.

What got here to Asha’s thoughts now was the way in which Roshin used to mark each portray by smearing ochre over his whole hand, then urgent his hand to the wall, abandoning its picture. “This is my special mark,” he’d say proudly. “It says, Roshin. Everyone will know that I painted this.”

There was one thing to this reminiscence. Asha felt it tugging at her. Roshin’s particular mark. So everybody would know he’d made it. His maker’s mark. She tried to observe the road of thought, however her eyes had been as heavy as the perimeters of a mountain. Pulling an ibex pores and skin over herself, laying her head on a pillow of rabbit furs, she slept.

The Washerwoman’s Baby

The subsequent day she adopted the trail the Slender Ones had taken. She wished to spy on them once more, and possibly hear the washerwoman making the mouth sounds. Their path was extensive. It was apparent from their tracks that they had been transferring slowly, burdened with youngsters and aged ones. Asha proceeded cautiously, not eager to stumble into their new campsite.

Coming round a bend within the river she paused, detecting a foul odor. The wind gusted and now the odor got here way more strongly. It was the stench of dying. She hurried forward, right into a riverside meadow. What she discovered surprised her. The Slender Ones lay lifeless in a meadow, all of them, their our bodies crushed and torn. Not solely males, however girls and kids. The meadow was soaked in blood. Thousands of flies buzzed and crawled, and vultures feasted on the lifeless, tearing at their faces and palms. Asha bumped into the meadow, screaming and waving her arms, and the vultures reluctantly flew away.

The stench of feces and bile pushed into her throat, gagging her. Here and there Old Ones lay lifeless as nicely. There was Fat Deer, with 5 spears protruding from his physique, together with one in his eye.

This was her doing. Rather than fleeing as she had informed them to do, Deer Clan had ambushed these individuals in the course of the night time, coming upon them of their sleep. It was unthinkable. Who ever heard of Old Ones committing a bloodbath?

Asha might need fled in that second, might need run head over heels in any course. But a sound stopped her.

She appeared round wildly. Had some Slender Ones survived? Were they returning to kill her? But there have been solely flies. There once more: a muffled wail. By the Deer, it was a child’s cry. Asha prowled the meadow, stepping over the our bodies, till she discovered the lifeless washerwoman. One half of the lady’s cranium was caved, brains spilling into the grass. The sound got here from beneath her. Asha rolled the lady over. Partially trapped beneath her in some kind of fabric sling, nearly suffocating, was the washerwoman’s child.

Able to breathe totally, the boy – for therefore it was, a boy of 1 summer time – screamed like an offended cat. He was black skinned like his individuals, and wholesome. Though his options had been flat and easy like all Slender Ones, he was good-looking. Asha eased him out of the sling. He was so small and light-weight, regardless of his chubby legs and arms. She rocked him, cooing, till his screams subsided into gasps.

The boy’s pores and skin was sizzling. She carried him to the river, the place she dipped her fingers into the water and dripped it into his mouth. He sucked greedily, and Asha realized he was hungry. Remembering what she’d seen moms of her individuals do, she pulled a pear from her pouch, took a chunk, chewed it, then spat the sauce onto her fingers and fed it to the boy. Soon he was happy. His eyes gazed into hers for a time, then his lids fluttered, and he slept.

Pursuit

If she saved this baby, she would by no means be alone. But… it might be a horrible injustice. He could be a perpetual exile, like Asha. She couldn’t impose that burden on him. He had dedicated no crime, and she or he couldn’t punish him. He deserved a life together with his personal individuals.

A big band of Slender Ones had come ashore half a moon in the past, heading north. They too had been transferring slowly. Perhaps if she ran, she may catch them. They would take this baby. They should.

She returned to the positioning of the bloodbath simply lengthy sufficient to grab the washerwoman’s sling, averting her eyes from the feasting vultures as she did so. Easing the newborn into it, she draped it over her shoulders, and set a course for house. At her cave, she stuffed as a lot dried ibex meat into her pouch as she may carry. Without delay, she started a quick march north, sustaining a straightforward lope.

She ran for 2 days, stopping solely to feed and clear the boy. This didn’t hassle her. She was match and powerful, and had often run for longer than this when pursuing an ibex herd. This was a phenomenal land, particularly within the coastal areas, and as she ran by the rolling grasslands she admired the sweep of the clouds throughout the sky, and the way in which their shadows moved throughout the land like a herd of spirits. Occasionally she encountered stands of shady woods, the place she stopped briefly to relaxation. The third day she got here throughout an enormous herd of gazelles transferring throughout the savannah, blocking her approach. They ignored her, and she or he sat on a boulder and tended to the newborn, watching them.

They had been lovely animals, with modern our bodies marked by a single darkish stripe alongside their abdomens. The males sported gently curving single-pronged horns. They had been smaller than ibexes and impalas, however Asha had by no means tried to catch one as a result of they had been quick runners and super jumpers. At the second, nonetheless, they had been taking their time, grazing as they went.

There was a clan of Old Ones, Asha knew, who worshiped Gazelle. Other clans worshiped Bear, Monkey, or Crow. But the gazelles too had been creatures of the earth. Some fought with others. Would gods kill each other? If they did that, the world could be in chaos. It appeared to Asha that if the animal gods fought, they may additionally enact vengeance on the individuals who worshiped the opposing god, till all of the individuals had been lifeless. But that didn’t occur.

She stroked the newborn’s exquisitely easy head, and he cooed at her. No, no, no, she thought, nonetheless pondering the issue of the gods. If a deity existed then it should be a single Deity solely, not ten fingers or ten occasions ten. But who was that Deity? How did he talk with the individuals? How ought to one acknowledge him? What had been the rites by which one ought to present dedication? Asha had no concept.

Day three, and she or he ran on. Sometimes the newborn reached to the touch her face. He typically smiled at her now. She wished so badly to maintain him. He could be her son, and he would love her. But she couldn’t! It was not proper.

On the fourth day she reached the sting of the northern desert. She noticed the Slender Ones’ tracks main into the waste. Where had been they going? She didn’t wish to observe. Her whole physique ached. The glare of the solar off the sand was practically blinding. She took a breath, and ran on.

This was madness. What would occur when she caught up with the Slender Ones? They would kill her. No, she argued with herself. They will see that I saved considered one of their very own, and might be grateful. And possibly they may see that, like them, I carry a spear and put on ibex skins. Maybe they may welcome me and take me in. In any case there was no alternative. She should return the newborn.

Maker’s Mark

She caught them that afternoon as they decamped within the shade of a cluster of boulders. Watching them from a distance, she hesitated. There had been quite a few hunters, all armed with spears, reclining as they drank water and ate. She may neither struggle them nor outrun them.

As if reminding her of her responsibility, the newborn gurgled and made a sound which may have been, “ma” or “na.” Surely he didn’t imply her. No, he was too younger. They had been solely random noises. She moved her toes. One foot in entrance of the opposite. Moving ahead.

They noticed her. Several hunters leaped to their toes and approached her confidently. Their our bodies and faces had been painted with white ochre in intricate designs, and so they wore animal skins that hung from their waists to their knees. A number of hefted their spears, balancing them of their palms.

Asha dropped her spear and held the newborn aloft, calling out. “He is one of yours! I saved him!”

The hunters lifted their spears.

“Wait!” Asha cried. “See! I am not an enemy.”

She by no means noticed the spear that ran her by. It punched by her abdomen, knocking the wind out of her. She sank to her knees, cradling the boy. One of the hunters reached down, took the newborn, known as out in his tongue.

Asha lay on her facet. Blood poured from her wound into the sand. “I… am not… an enemy,” she gasped. “Don’t… you see? I… am… like you.”

The hunters walked away. Asha’s gaze fastened on the sky. Late afternoon clouds had been sweeping in from the east, darkish with monsoon rains. One huge grey cloud was formed like a hand, its fingers backlit and shining. It reminded her of Roshin the cave painter, and the way in which he marked the partitions together with his handprints. His particular mark. His maker’s mark.

In a second of enlightenment that made her eyes open extensive, she grasped the thought she’d been struggling to kind a number of nights in the past. If this cloud was a maker’s mark, identical to Roshin’s handprints, then who was the maker, and what did he make? The maker could possibly be none apart from the one Deity she had conceived of. And what did he make? The sky upon which the clouds had been drawn. The land, the ocean… Asha herself. The Old Ones, the Slender Ones. Everything, every little thing, every little thing. And what did the Maker need? Asha remembered how Roshin had been blissful to have his talent acknowledged.

“I see you,” Asha whispered. “Maker of all.”

The ache in her abdomen intensified and she or he moaned in agony and terror. Her palms scrabbled on the sand. Her individuals known as her a demon and a god. But she was not. She was solely a woman.

“I want my Na,” she whispered. Eyes extensive open, she appeared to see the faces of Na and Msha wanting down at her, and past them a sky that went on ceaselessly.

THE END

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – together with Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – can be found in e-book and print kind on his writer web page at Amazon.com.

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