The old woman who wore mimebird feathers in her hair dropped six wrist-sized sticks into the fire pit. She bent down, making of her figure a lump of rock or a far hill or a tree stump. She took metal and a rock that she had been allowed to keep and clumsily struck them together. And of course, nothing happened. You’re doing it wrong, I thought at her. I should know. A fire wife knew better than anyone how to make a fire happen. But I couldn’t tell her that.
The feather woman looked up at me, smiled a gapped smile, and shrugged, laughing a little. I couldn’t tell her, but I supposed I could show her. The Odds Camp, where the saddest and lowest victims of war were kept, hardly seemed the place to hold firm the precepts of civilized society. She was my elder, yes, but if we were to eat hot food and not freeze that night, I would have to dishonor her. I was ashamed, and not even sure I would be successful. But she wouldn’t be.
I picked up a few pieces of kindling at my feet and took them to the fire. I watched the anger in her face until it dissipated and became recognition of who I had been before the war. I looked around and then put a dirty finger to my lips. She sat, and I carefully took apart her fire and built a new one. By the time a few weak yellow flames were attempting to overtake the kindling, feather woman had put her arms around me, our bodies trembling with the tears each of us thought to keep secret.
Feather Woman never spoke. I don’t know if she could. Silently we watched each batch of refugees with sideways looks as if we were merely curious. But as the days passed and our desperation grew like a flame fanned by a high wind, we cared less for being careful. When the gates opened and those who answered to the conqueror marched our tribespeople through those gates in mangled lines, we were the first to drop our meals or feather gathering and run to watch the newcomers. I searched every face that came through for anyone I knew. Each time there was no one, I forced a smile. That meant they had gotten away, I told myself. He was safe. But I wanted him there with me, too. With his help, I thought I might actually be able to make some new, whole life out of the pieces of kindling the conqueror had left of me.
Feather Woman, I soon learned, did not wait for herself. She came with me, mirroring my emotions. One day, as I smiled my lie of a smile, she clapped her hands together like a happy child who has just seen a butterfly for the first time. I put an arm around her on the way back to our corner and squeezed.
And so in this manner, I existed, for what may have been months. We ate the meager food our captors allowed us. We built little fires. We kept to ourselves. And of course, Feather Woman collected feathers. She found them in the yards, the pathways, and snagged in the metal fence that surrounded the whole of the Odds’ Camp. She wove each one into her hair slowly, hands heavy with bulbous knuckles. I watched as her hair became less hair, it seemed, and more feathers, until her head was covered with them. I smiled at Feather Woman and wondered what she called me in her head when she thought about me, if she did. Maybe I was Once Fire Wife or Used to Have Magic or simply No Tongue.
The conqueror’s men had come before I could build the fire large enough to cover me. I was going to save my village, but they came before I could.
The onions had sat, three to a row and three to a column, next to three heads of garlic, three acorn squash, and then the chicken, already plucked, tied and dressed with rosemary. I had smoothed out my apron, taken a deep breath, a moment of calm, and then I began.
Deep into the chopping and sautéing, Shen had filled the doorway, watching, the only sound he made the breath rattling in his nostrils. When I turned to look, the chief’s oldest son met my eyes and smiled. The smile had none of the tilt or snarl of lust, unlike the other men in the tribe. They all want what they cannot have. His smile was genuine happiness to see me.
“Mistress Aruna,” he said, losing the smile. Oh, beautiful Shen, I had thought. I had always thought. If I weren’t wed to the fire. I had been fire wife in the chief’s home for three years and had hidden my love for Shen for nearly that long. “My father wishes to see you. It is urgent. There’s been a rider from the hills.” The meal went half prepared. I thought about refusing, something well within my power, but curiosity was more persuasive than a demonstration of power. I wiped my hands on my apron before removing it and unlatched the silver band that bound my hair. I shook my hair a little and ducked out of the kitchen.
“Aruna Firewife,” the chief said. Beyond him a man slumped in the corner. The rider. He drank water, and his face was flushed pink from his cheekbones to his ears. The chief sighed, waiting.
“Backwa, Chechma Chief,” the formality hurried out of me, and I waved my hand as if to hurry them more. It hadn’t seemed the time for ceremony.
I sat in the chair Shen offered, and then the chief sat, too. A serving man brought carved wooden bowls of coffee, stained dark brown from years of use.
“The Rathodians are camped a day’s ride from here,” Backwa said. His body was old, but hard from a life of work. He looked hardly older than Shen, but darker and less happy. I expected then that I would look the same in a few years, as if I were made out of only bone and sand, instead of flesh and blood. Looking at the chief was like looking at a tree.
“Dinner sits a collection of gourds on the table,” I had said to him, bold as can be. Light flickered in his eye, but he didn’t move.
“They have finally come to fold us into Rathodia. We are to become Rathodians.” He looked at me, a question in his eye, as if I were a stupid child.
“Of course I know what that means,” I nearly shouted. Shen shuffled his feet beside me. Why did he still stand there like a man servant? I took a deep breath to cleanse the anger that was growing within my chest like the putrid heart sickness. I knew even then that the anger was fed by fear. Fear of losing the only way I had ever known. The only reason for being.
“They sit on their women,” the man in the corner called to us, his voice cracking. The chief looked at him as if he were the son of a beggar sitting at his high table. Backwa looked as though he might spit, but he did not. Instead he said, “We need to decide if we are going to fight, or go peacefully.”
“Are we prepared for such a fight? How many warriors have they? And we?”
“You have until sunup to give me your answer.” I had been dismissed.
Back out in the air, I started walking, but not back toward the cook house. I walked toward the tree line with the hope that in among the trees no one would find me for a time and I could think. Word would have already gotten to the women’s quarters about the decision to be made. When that happened in the past for small matters, like who should marry whom or what crops they should plant the coming planting season, I had been overwhelmed by the tribe’s people who wished to sway my vote in one direction or another. I had been convinced of how well beets kept and how they worked wonders for the blood, and how we should plant parsnips instead of beets because they didn’t stain our clothes or how we should plant beets because we could use them to stain our clothes beautiful shades of red. It had been maddening. But this decision required a clear head and hours of my most important thought. My decision would change the course of my people forever, and probably kill most of them besides. Shen still walked at my elbow. I had waited for him to drop off on his way elsewhere, but he didn’t .
Stopping midstride, I turned to face him. I waited. I was not a woman known for my ability to hold my tongue once it began a journey.
“We probably aren’t. They seem to have about thirty warriors, while we have twelve,” he answered. “They could also send reinforcements if we manage to hold on for any length of time. We have the hills as the advantage. Higher ground is always good in a fight.”
“Be careful when you use the word always,” I had whispered. “They may just find a way to use it to their advantage.”
“But we also have you.” He smiled when he said it, as if he really believed that I were enough to make up the difference of 18 trained warriors wielding spears and arrows. I had smiled back at his confidence. His admiration. I had dared not hope that it was more.
“What is out here?” Shen asked. He motioned with his head in the direction we were going and had to squint into the blazing rays of the setting sun.
“My husband,” I laughed, bitterness scaring the edges of the sound. He stopped and watched me walk ahead of him for a few spans. I reached the tree line before him and began gathering kindling. He jogged to catch up. He gathered with me, and we worked silently until a small fire was laid out in the ceremonial rock ring I privately used.
“You’ve been a friend to me these last three years. Shen.” I had said his name quietly and slowly, as if it tasted like honey on my tongue.
“You talk as though you’ve made your decision.”
“Fire is consumption. The tongues of the fire lick until there is no more fuel, and then they travel outward, searching for more. Fire gives us warmth and hot food and light, but it also takes away like a thief come under the blanket of night.”
“Could you love me?” He asked the question straightforward and naïve. I studied his face for jest and found none. “Even a little, enough, so that we could be together, under Rathodian law?”
“Shen.” His name felt like magic. I wanted it to be. I said it again. He mistook my meaning, was untouched by the magic, and he turned away.
“Please forgive me, Aruna Firewife.” He smiled bitterly, laughing at himself. I told him he misunderstood me and the Rathodians.
“They will know who I am, Shen. They will take me. They will use me. They will kill me.”
“I won’t let them. I will hide you. Tell them you are my wife.” He took my shoulders in his hands, touching me as I had not been touched since I was a child. He moved his desperate hand to my face. “You would have me, wouldn’t you?”
I could not answer. The sound of the Rathodian warriors cresting the hills came to us on the wind. I was too late. Shen drew his sword and ran back toward his father’s tents. He would die defending me, I had thought. For nothing.
The Rathodians came for me not long after I watched Shen’s back disappear in the distance. I had wanted to run after him, stop him from going, run the other way. But a strength of honor held me like roots of a tree in the spot where I stood. The smoke from the fire drew them. They thought they were finding warriors or perhaps tribespeople caught unaware. They thought what they found would go easily. They wanted us, I knew, not for us but for our hands. We would work in their fields and in their mines and in their whore houses. If they didn’t kill us, they would use us.
But I was a fire wife. I wouldn’t come easily. Raising my hands out in front of me, I began chanting. The fire hissed its words to me, and I gave them voice, changing the air in the palms of my hands into fire. My skin stung as I sent the burning fire on the wind to the approaching warriors. They gasped and bent, drawing fire into their lungs. Some fell. They beat at the flames with their swords, but you can’t fell magic like you do a man. I took the very fire into me and spread it across the wall of warriors with a wave of my arms. Their faces were red and then black. We are the people of the fire.
But more came, and the wall of warriors did not fall. The fuel of my fire dwindled, and soon it grew difficult to hold onto the flames. The place of change between fire and not fire grew wider. And then the Rathodian fire wife rode up on a horse the color of a cold day.
She slid off the horse, and I chanted again, my voice crackling like one of my fires. She was shorter then I, and older. Did I know her? She wore the red scars of many blisters, but I do not burn. I hated myself for wanting to give her more blisters.
“Is there no chance for talk?” I shouted over the rush of wind and flame. Her smile spoke of pity. She began to chant in a language I did not understand. It was not the language of the fire. I pushed against her, but my fire was too small and growing smaller until the last brand snuffed to smoke.
“What have you done?” I asked the crone as two Rathodians took my arms.
“What I am made to do,” she answered.
I had not exaggerated when I told Shen that the Rathodians would take me and use me. What I didn’t know, is that they would not favor me with death. Instead, their blade master used his sharpest knife and took my tongue.
A mind protects itself. My mind wrapped around me and forgot to think for days. When I woke up, the pain threatened to take back my consciousness and return me to the darkness of unknowing. Every swallow reminded me of how I wanted to die and how lucky I was to still be living. They had used my own friend fire to stop the blood. I reached out to the fire beside me with my mind. All my spells swirled in my head, but I could not utter the words. My magic was dead. When I was awake enough, they led me to the Odds Camp, where I was set free within the walls. The first few days it rained, and I stayed in the shelter with the old and the sick. Then I met Feather Woman.
I am always hungry.
Feather Woman and I stopped going to see the new arrivals. There weren’t many now, and we had other concerns. Summer had arrived, and we stayed out of the sun when we could. I spent days staring at my upturned hands, listening to the fire speak, and waiting for the flame to appear. Once I thought I felt my palm tingle, but I was mistaken.
We collected rocks and made a better fire pit. We collected more rocks and made a picture with them in the dirt around our pit. We placed the rocks end to end in large spirals. They swept us away to another place, a place where we could see the stars and lie in the cool arms of the sea.
And then one day, he walked in through the gates, the last refugee. I saw him from our fire. The bowl of gruel slipped from my fingers when I saw him walk like a ghost through the camp. I half stood. Feather Woman looked from me to Shen and then back to me. She understood through all the pain that clouded her everyday thoughts that this man was who we had been waiting for all those days. She clapped her hands and repeated the sound “ya” over and over. I wanted to make her stop. I didn’t want to share this moment with anyone but him. I pushed her out of my way and walked slowly to meet him.
His clothes hung on the angles of him. He shuffled his feet in the dirt and kept his hands outstretched in front of him as if he were feeling an invisible power welling up from the ground. And two black pits were burnt into the place where his eyes had been.
I made my first sound. A gargled cry left my throat without my bidding. I hadn’t intended letting him know I was there. Death would have been kinder. But he heard and turned his face to me.
“Who’s there?” he asked. The only sound I could make was three grunts to symbolize the three syllables of the name by which he knew me. I had not heard the name in months. I had thought there was no person living who knew me by that name. Shen shook his head. He didn’t understand. I went to him. I took his hand, and I led it to my hair. Please remember, I thought at him. His hand cupped my head as if it had lain there a thousand times before. Oh, would that we had.
He leaned in close and touched his nose to my hair. I knew I smelled of sweat and blood and dung, but I also smelled of smoke. There had always been the smell of smoke about me. He lingered there, his nose in my hair, and then whispered, “Aruna?” I nodded my head to that he could feel it. Had he eyes, perhaps he would have cried. I did, but not for happiness. I took his hand again, and this time I put his fingers in my empty mouth.
He sobbed then, and I cried the tears that he couldn’t. We were broken, and there was no peace that could heal us.