Running Straight

When my madi had dreams, she had the best dreams—splashy, bold dreams with lots of color, and when she told her dreams to the story circle, those were the best nights, the nights I felt alive. “Careful, Cinti,” she would say. “Be careful that you remember these.” And I was. I hoarded the dreams in my head until I thought they might tumble free from my ears. I knew the dreams where she traveled straight through the hills like a ginger-rat seeking out the quiet places with dripping water where the roots sank deep into underground streams. “That’s good water,” my madi said. “Good water that will keep a girl like you going for many miles.” Sometimes in those dreams, there were fearsome animals lurking in the weeds, watching the ginger-rat with yellow eyes. But the ginger-rat knew what she was doing. She crept through the grasses and if any striped cat snapped at her bushy tale, she hissed and kicked out with her back feet. And then she ran, and she ran swift as the river which ran outside our houses. “That was a river made by men,” my madi said sometimes when she sat beating out our clothes on the rocks. “And that means it’s flawed, Cinti. All man-made things, they have flaws.” And then she would smile and she would tap a finger at her neck, just below the collar they made us wear. “They have flaws,” she laughed.

In the hot years, we were worked hardest. And the hot years were longer than the cold. The sun in the hot years was close to us and seemed almost white out of the corner of my eye, it was that hot. I didn’t have much schooling, not like madi, but even I knew that the fire burns hottest when it’s white, the coals nestled together in the center of the pit were a lighter orange when the flames leaped high. The cold sun was a dark red and it sat low in the gray sky. I loved the cold years. In the cold years we didn’t work so much because the fields were dead. They would send the girls and boys like me to lay traps then for small meat-animals, such as squirrels and prickle-backs, and that’s what we’d eat.

They didn’t let madi go beyond the fences or any of the other women. I knew when I turned sixteen years that they would collar me and keep me inside the fences too, and I was scared of that day. I liked too much running through the tall grasses and weaving out the strings of the traps and balancing them just so. I liked sitting on the hill just to the east of the fences and resting my chin on my hand so that the purple-budded flowers that still grew in the cold years tickled my nose. And I would stare down into the fences and see the fields stretching long away from me, past where I could see, dark and unplanted, and the houses where we lived clustered this side of them on the bank of the river. Outside the fences there was a bridge over the river and each night that I came back in from the traps, I would lift up a stone under which I had been keeping track of the days and make another mark. There were only eighty-one days in a cold year, and two hundred in a hot, and it took me some time to make sure my adding was right. But on one of the last days of the cold year, when the air had been growing gradually warmer and the red sun was smaller in the sky, I figured I had only two years left, a hot and a cold, and I would be collared like madi.

In the last of the cold year, madi was often low. She smiled less and muttered more under her breath. The itchin men watched us closely then. They walked by the houses more and whistled loudly at night so we would know they were there even when we couldn’t see them. I had asked madi once why we called them that, the itchin men. “Because the itching after is almost worse than the whip,” madi had said and she had been laughing then because we were in the deeps of the cold year when anything could make madi laugh, “when you’re healing your body and your blood and skin are fighting back at them. And you itch. But itching means you’re winning.”

They didn’t beat the women often, mostly because the collars did all their work for them. Madi was forced to wear it anytime the sun was up and she winced when the itchin men came even though she tried to hide it from me. They came, three at a time, one holding the collar out as if he were afraid to go near madi, the other two with black looks on their face and with their whips curled in their hands. They also had other weapons stuck in belts at their waists, heavy metal tubes with stubby handles. I had never seen one used and madi said they were worse than the whips because they didn’t just hurt you, they killed you dead. The inside of the collar had needles thin as hairs that glinted like glass in the first rays of sunlight.

When I asked madi how she stood it and how the needles didn’t make her scream, she said that pain could only hurt so much before you knew it like a friend. “And friends can only help us, Cinti,” she whispered. But she was holding me close under the blankets and watching the night-sky growing light. “How can the collars help us?” I thought of the marks under the stone on the bridge. “They’re hiding us, little,” and she called me the way she had called me when I was young, stroking my hair. And then she held my fingers close between hers and I shivered because her hands were cold. She asked if I was dreaming yet and I told her that when I slept, I didn’t see anything—no colors, no stories, no ginger-rats. “You, you’re my ginger-rat, Cinti,” she breathed into my ear, but I didn’t understand and the itchin men came and they dragged me to one corner and I watched them put the collar on madi. She was thin and in the new light, a yellower light as the hot sun gained over the cold, I could see the white shift she wore pressed up against her ribs.

The women sat down in the story circle more during the hot sun years, and this is something I did miss in the cold years. The story circle was nothing much but a couple of stumps pounded into the ground and a pile of ashes in the middle where we built a fire over again each night. At night, when the sun had finally set, after we had eaten our share from the fields baked into bread or cooked into mush, madi and I joined the circle with the others, the girls like me sitting in front of the women. I leaned my head back against madi’s knees and her long cotton skirts smelled a bit like the purple buds from the cold years when the fire warmed them.

The boys were never there and madi said that we were better for them not being there, but some of the women looked lonely without their children, especially if all they had were boys. “The boys leave us once they’ve grown,” my madi said, and her face twisted when she spoke. “When are they grown?” She turned me and pressed me down on my knees so she could braid my hair while still sitting on the bed. It was better when in the fields to not have my hair long and getting in my eyes or, worse, getting caught in some of the machines. A girl had had her ear torn off a few years back because she had left her hair loose. “They’re grown the same as you, Cinti,” and madi let her voice drop low. And I knew she meant that the boys left when they turned sixteen. I didn’t ask where they went, because I was afraid of where it might be.

The stories the women told were the dreams they had at night. Even the itchin men came to hear them spin out the colors, standing stiff at the edge of the light where it turned suddenly to dark, and they seemed to listen close. The woman who lived in the house next to us always told dreams of boats. Boats came up the river, she said, boats with sails like ghosts, white and filmy and see-through. I didn’t understand how such sails would catch the wind but I could see them when she described them. She didn’t seem happy when she told her dreams, but she seemed settled and resigned. She had eyes like tear-drops, big and drooping, so it seemed like she was always sad and her lips didn’t curve up when she smiled, so I always wondered if something had happened to her when she was little to make her so. Herri was older than most, even madi, and her pale skin was wrinkled like folds in paper. And she used her hands when she spoke, as if she were pushing the boats up the river herself. “Who’s on the boats?” one of the little girls asked, one of the girls who still had to have a rope tied around her waist to keep her near her madi in the fields. “Spirits. Spirits on the boat, little. With wings gold like the grain at harvest. And they smile and they wave and they’re coming to take some.” Here, my madi tensed and she placed a hand on my head and I could feel her fingers digging deep through my hair to the scalp.

When madi told stories, there were no boats. It seemed that madi always told her stories last and the other women in the circle would lean slightly towards her when she talked. And madi spoke soft so that the crackle of the fire seemed a part of her stories, competing with the words. “Straight through the hills runs the red-badger,” madi said, “not turning this way or that, but climbing over and running down deep, through the hollows. Where the trees bend down low, kissing the water, the red-badger drinks and she eats the roots of the lacy flowers. There’s a snake slithering after and the red-badger, she waits in the grass, and she hears the snake pass. And just when the snake’s almost passed, the red-badger, she jumps and she bites as hard as she can. And she doesn’t let go.” And when madi said the last, she tapped my shoulder at every word.

The fields were longer than I could see the end of. Sometimes, at harvest, when the bag over my shoulder was full, madi would send me running back to the itchin men for a new one. Walking back to her, my bare feet cutting their own furrow, I stared out past the women and just watched the horizon. Once, when the white sun was burying into the dirt, I saw men on horses riding out of it, coming over the hills. I stopped where I was, and my madi looked back at me, her face tight. She waved her hand at me, telling me to come to her, but I couldn’t move. The first horseman carried a white flag on a pole he balanced over his shoulder and it was almost see-through, the sun coming through it seemed whiter than ever. When they came closer, I could hear the horses’ hooves on the packed grass at the edge of the field. I had only seen horses once before and they seemed too large for animals. Taller than me, I wondered how they could eat enough to not feel hungry.

The men who jumped down off the horses wore high riding boots, but other than that, they looked like itchin men, yellow braided collars and cuffs and buttons that shone almost too-bright. Our itchin men went to meet them, though some held back and walked slow, keeping an eye on us. “Here’s a new one for you,” the man with the flag spoke but he had handed it off to someone else behind him. “You can send your longest man home—Evert, I’m thinking?” The man had pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and was reading it for names. One of our itchin men smiled broad and dropped his whip as if he were leaving right that moment, jumping on one of the horses and running. He looked almost as excited as I think I would have looked to know that sixteen wasn’t coming so fast and that I could still go outside the fences after this coming cold year.

A woman screamed. It wasn’t madi, I knew, even before I looked at her. It was one of those who looked so lonely sitting in the story circle, her shawl wrapped high around her shoulders. She didn’t seem to dream much, or she didn’t tell many stories. Not anymore, at least, though it seemed I remembered her talking more when I was little. “Jonni!” She screamed the name and it was a name for children, like madi calling me Cinti when that wasn’t my full name. She took off running for the itchin men even though we all knew that was craziness. The itchin men didn’t like us to move too suddenly around them, and definitely not towards them. Herri was taking time to straighten, but she was standing near me, and she tried to grab the woman’s shoulder as she stumbled past, pushing the stalks of the plants to either side before they whipped at her and cut her arms. “Baab, no,” she said soft and then loud when the woman wasn’t listening and threw herself off against Herri. Baab, like little, was something you called someone you loved and something you called someone when they were acting foolish.

A loud crack, like thunder, rolled over the fields and everyone grew really still. We all looked at the itchin men again, because we had been so distracted by the woman. The man with the paper was putting the weapon madi had told me about back in his belt. There was a young man behind him, if grown up, not too much. He had the look of an itchin man and was dressed as one, but he didn’t have a whip yet and his face wasn’t hard yet. He was the new one. His face was white and his lips trembling. Madi had still not moved and no one else had. Even Herri had been sure to keep her place when she was reaching out hands to stop the woman. The woman was on her back, not near anyone, the plants crushed under her, and she was staring up straight. There was a hole in her stomach and blood. “In case you’ve forgotten,” the man with the paper raised his voice and he had mustaches which fluttered when he talked, “we’ve got other kinds as can work these fields, we’ve got others who would gladly do what you do. The republic is merciful, but not unwaveringly so. Bury your dead tonight and double the yield tomorrow.” And then he turned away to the other itchin men as if we weren’t even there.

I had seen another burial, but I was young and I hadn’t seen the woman die myself. The women wrapped Kila in blankets and they strung rope with rocks around her. We buried our dead in the river, madi said, because there they had some hope of seeing sunlight again, even if it did have to go through a lot of water. In a line, we all stood along the riverbank and with another, madi slipped her in. The current took her at the same time as the rocks, because the rush was strong here, so Kila moved as she sank, moved away from us. “May she see better things,” Herri whispered. The itchin men were behind us and they seemed nervous, hands at their belts. When it was over and the sun was entirely gone, the itchin men came up to us and they took the collars from the women. Madi pursed her lips as the needles came out, touched with red.

We went to the story-circle afterwards even though we knew we would have to be up earlier than the sun tomorrow if we wanted to make our double-yield. The women were quiet for a long time and the fire had died low into red coals before anyone spoke. Finally, Puret told her story. “I dreamed this night that we all wore necklaces, but they were of the finest and softest gold and they did not choke us but lay gentle on our breasts.” A hush settled on us and I looked at madi, confused. The itchin men didn’t move and they didn’t seem to hear, but Herri hissed, “Careful.” Puret wasn’t listening and her words were running and tripping into each other. “The fields were burning in my dreams and there was screaming, but we were laughing.” Tears were welling up in her eyes but they didn’t seem to fall on her face. “That’s a long dream,” Herri said, but, to me, it had seemed short. Herri didn’t speak of boats that night. And when madi and I stripped down to our shifts and lay down in our beds, she rested her chin on my shoulder so she could talk into my ear. “That’s where the boys go, little, and by the time they come back to us, they’ve forgotten they loved us. And so we have to forget we love them, the itchin men. And sometimes it’s hard to forget.” I wished very hard, my face pushed into the mattress beneath, that I could forget Kila screaming at her boy. “It’s alright, Cinti,” my madi said as if she could read my mind. “You don’t have to forget everything just yet.” I closed my eyes and didn’t answer and tried to breathe like I was sleeping.

I woke up in the darkness and I wondered if madi had shaken me awake, but I could hear her breathing steady. My head hurt. I whispered to madi, close to her ear, “Madi, I saw something.” I did not think she had woken up at first, but her breathing sped up. I could barely hear her when she finally answered, “Say it close to me, little,” and I did. Then she sat up as well and climbed out from under the blankets. The room was already warming, because in the hot years, the heat was never really gone. Each house had only a few candles, but she took one up now and lighting it to fire with a match, she came back to the bed. She folded up the hem of the blanket and I saw she had sewn into the hem a series of stitches, all in a line. Madi had been counting too, because the stitches looked much the same as the marks I had made under the stone on the bridge. I felt cold, then, despite the warm air, and I grabbed madi’s arm. “I have one more year.” “You have as long as we can give you, Cinti,” my madi said, and then “remember the dreams, little, always remember them.”

The door opened and we had not even heard the steps of the itchin men. They brought madi’s collar because the sun would come up after we were already in the field. They have one for me too, I thought and started to quake inside, but they did not. It happened like it did every morning, me in the corner watching, and my madi standing straight and tall while the needles pierced her skin. For the first time, I thought my madi was beautiful, her red hair tumbling down her back and her green eyes that were sometimes gray flashing in the candlelight. I try to always remember her like that, but she does not visit my dreams.

After that night, I understood for the first time also that the dreams came with growing up, but madi said that the itchin men would not suspect unless I told them, not until I was sixteen years. And it seemed true, because I was allowed to go outside the fences when the cold year came. I missed the white sun more this year, though, and the red sun seemed to mock me. I thought of Kila and her blood. As much as possible, I worked alone, apart from the other girls and boys. I did not want to look out over the fields or the houses, because I worried what riders I might see against the red sun if the white sun had brought what it did. But I could not stay away from the eastern hill, so I crouched low in the grasses, huddling against the cold.

Sometimes, I fell into naps there, dangerous I knew, and when I woke, my fingers and toes would be numb. And I dreamed and it would always seem the same dream to me as the night I had woken my madi and she had counted the stitches. It was not a story like the women told. It was flashes and pictures and there was blood in my dreams. They would always end with my madi stepping out in front of me, between me and something I could not tell, and she would scream like I had never heard her scream before. I woke up sobbing. I shoved my face into my cold hands and tried to forget. But they began to come when I was awake too, growing up through the grasses, and sometimes, bent over the traps, I could not see the prickle-back, but only my own hands covered with red. I felt like the itchin men were looking at me differently when I came back into the fences.

My madi noticed it when I grew silent. She sat behind me, braiding and unbraiding my hair as if it was all she knew to comfort me. She asked me what I saw, but I would not tell her. “Cinti, you must tell me,” she said when the sun was gone and her collar had been removed. We lay in the bed, nestled close to each other for warmth. She tried to tell me a story from the circle. “There is a little red sharp-toothed mouse in my dream,” she whispered. “And it runs quicker than you can follow, weaving through the grasses, straight toward the hills.” I told her that I did not want to hear about stories and dreams. “Cinti,” and she sounded quiet, still as the grasses on a windless day, “they are not stories.” I clutched the blanket closer and stared ahead into the black hollow of the room. I asked her what they were. “Our dreams are what will happen.” Something caught in my throat and it felt like a sharp crust of bread, cutting me as I swallowed. “Madi,” I said and I began to weep. She shushed me as if I were a small child, though she had not called me little since the night I had begun to dream. “Tell me what you have seen,” she said again. I could not, even though I did not fully understand. Even though I did not really believe her.

“Will the collars make it stop?” My madi’s breath drew in sharply. “The itchin men think it does. They’re scared, Cinti, and they know it is the sunlight that lets us see, but they cannot keep us from dreaming. The dreams, though less clear, are no less real.” The tears choked my throat as I tried to speak. “I don’t want to see anything. I will go to the itchin men. I will ask for a collar.” My madi’s voice became stern and she sounded angry with me. “You must never do that,” she said. “Why would you do that?” I thought of the dreams that came to me in the grasses. “I am ordering you, Cinti, you must not ask for this.” I told madi that I would not ask for a collar, but I did not sleep for the rest of the night. In the morning, the itchin men came and collared madi and she stared at me while they did it as if to warn me, as if to tell me with her eyes that I could not ask for such a thing.

The women told their stories in the cold year less often because the nights dropped to bitter temperatures. Even a fire banked high held only so much heat for us as we gathered near it. The itchin men stamped their feet at the edges of the light. Perhaps the red sun brought us fewer dreams, though it did not seem so for me. Even when my madi told her dreams and she whispered like the reeds around the stream in the valley and she chittered like the bald hare who nibbled at the leaves of the lacy flowers, I heard her screaming. “And the hare runs down the slope of the last mountain and sees ahead a water longer and wider than the fields. The water crashes at the sand and the dune-grasses. The hare knows there are ships here that will take her far away. Far away from the hawk.” My madi’s voice tickled at my ears and she tapped on my shoulder as she did every time she told her dreams. And even though she had told me now and I knew they were real dreams, they sounded less and less so to me.

I no longer picked up the stone on the bridge on my way back from the grasses to the fences. I did not make a mark for each day that passed. The snows came and covered the fields and the grasses in thick drifts, and the wind swept over it, kicking the flakes up into glittering funnels. Sometimes, I paused on the eastern hill and looked away from the fences and tracked with my eyes the prints left by some small animal running toward the other hills that crowded up close. “Cinti,” my madi begged me each night, “tell me what you see.” I would not tell her and I thought that perhaps this is why the itchin man brought collars each morning at sunrise to the women. If I told my madi that I saw her dying, that I saw her screaming and that I saw her like Kila on the ground, I was scared that the seeing might come true.

On the last day of the cold year, the itchin men built up large bonfires where they burned the last of the fuel stored against the red sun and its weak heat. They drank water boiled with fermented apples and hot spices. The women were not forced out of the houses to mend the fences and the boys and girls did not go out to tend to the traps. We had brought them in, with our last squirrels, and the itchin men let us keep our own catch on this day. Over the fires of the story-circle, the women spit the squirrels and let them roast. Fat dripped into the flames and the coals spat and sizzled. “Cinti, stay close,” my madi said as she slipped the knife between hide and flesh, and the blade skissed through the tendons. I looked at her and then back at the fire. I saw her staring at me still out of the corner of my eye.

None of us saw how or when the bonfire spread to the roofs of the houses nearest the field. The red of the flames burned in our eyes and when I looked anywhere but at the fire, I could still see it dancing—against the dark sky, against the grasses, against the hills. The itchin men that had been circled around our own, though with relaxed stances, cups full in their hands, took a minute to register the roaring. Then they dropped their cups and the water splashed on the ground but that did nothing to stop the fire. Some yelled at us, ordering us to stay together and accusing us of spreading the fire, but most ran toward those houses that were spiraling into ash. “Cinti,” my madi’s voice was low and harsh in my ear. “Run, Cinti. Run.” I turned to her, coughing, and my eyes were wet. “Madi, I can’t leave.” “Cinti,” she held my face close to hers and she stroked my cheek and pushed the hair off my forehead. “Cinti, this is what I’ve seen. You must run.” And she pushed me away. I stumbled, catching my feet under me, turning, running. Behind me, I heard the rough shout of one of the itchin men. “Stop!” But madi’s voice was beating like a drum behind me, “Run, Cinti, run.” I could hear the colors in her voice and like the ginger-rat and like the red-badger and like the sharp-toothed mouse, I ran. But I heard the sounds of my own dreams as well. The thunder rolled under the rumbling of the fire. My madi gasped like the sound a prickle-back made when the trap collapsed in on his leg. “Madi!” I turned and saw her falling. Herri reached a hand out towards me, palm up, stopping me. “Baab, go.”

I stopped in the first hollow, farther than I’d ever been from the fields or the fences. I was crying and gasping. I was swallowing my own spit and choking on it. I had run straight to the hills and not turned to go one way or the other round them. Running up had been hard, but my legs had moved almost on their own and running down had taken no thought and little work. I could hear nothing but my own breathing and the whining in my throat. There was a creek ahead of me, choked by weeds, but, with the smoke and the pain in my throat, I did not stop to think, but dropped to my knees and scooped up the brown water in my cupped hands. It tasted of mud. A lace-flower brushed my ear as I lifted my head up, my hand still dripping over the creek, to hear back over my shoulder. My face stung in the cool breeze that still waited here in the shadows of the hills on the eve of the hot year. Crashing down through the grasses, an itchin man worked to stop himself at the bottom of the hill, his arms circling to find his balance. I didn’t give him time to find it. Pushing myself up, I hurled my whole body at him, and he fell under me. I grabbed the killing weapon from his belt before he had caught his breath and I shoved it into his cheek. “You’re just a girl,” he said. And just when the snake’s almost passed, the red-badger, she jumps and she bites as hard as she can. “That’s not what my madi saw,” I said back to him. And she didn’t let go. I pulled the trigger and the weapon bucked crazily in my hand. I tumbled back off the itchin man. He spasmed, his legs and arms jerking, and then he went really still. I dropped the gun and I was still crying.

The white sun rose hot as I stumbled up the further hill. My chest and back hurt, and my lungs still wheezed with the tears in my eyes. My nose burned from snot and wet. I couldn’t see the fields or the houses when I looked back but I could see the smoke fading out in the dawn sky. I couldn’t see nothing but hills when I looked forward either, but madi had said to go straight.