Jemma’s Story

One

I don’t remember much about those seven days. Those days I lived in fear, fear of a horrible poison leaking out of home and following us, following us to this free land, this land that was safe and dangerous all at the same time. It was not dangerous like the place we left, no, Jerel’s poison was subtle, hidden. You could live with that danger, pretend to ignore it or secretly fight against it. Whichever you chose, you could live with it, and you could stay safe and alive as long as you didn’t think too much about it. You were fine, until it hit you, quick and sure and true, like a trumpet call. Once that happened, you had to wake up, and were never safe again.

The sky was pink on the day they stopped running. Jemma woke up that day with a sigh of relief, knowing that they were done with the running. Actually, she didn’t know how far in they were. All she knew was that they had been going east every day, for seven days, and there was no way they could go any farther. They had moved fast for who they were, and Jemma could only hope it had been enough, because now they were stuck where they were, wherever that was.

She let the feeling of relief wash over her for a minute more, and then forced herself to think realistically. Today they needed to get a spot, and more importantly, make sure that it wasn’t anybody else’s spot. That was critical, because here in Aeis, there were no rules, no lines to cross. The land belonged to whoever claimed it, and once they had claimed it, they would kill to keep it. You had to be very careful about where you ended up. Their second night in, they had made the mistake of not looking, and Jemma had woken up to a knife at her throat. She shivered, remembering. That had been a terrible night, running and sleeping and waking, far too early, and having to move again. She hadn’t known to look then, hadn’t really understood how this place worked. She thought she knew, now, but she had been avoiding thinking about some of the more frightening details of this place. Aeis. The Thumb. The free land.

Her father was still sleeping. On the ground. On top of a blanket, but still, on the ground. It had rained just recently, she could tell, for the ground was wet. The blanket was soaked, and her father’s clothes weren’t much dryer. She really shouldn’t have let him sleep on the ground, but they had both been so tired, and the ground was so much easier to sleep on than the branch of a tree. Jemma was wet as well, but there were no clouds in the sky today, and she would dry with the sun. She leaned the sword against the trunk of the tree. It was their most valuable possession at this point, but it had been a huge annoyance while they were running. Her father had carried it, but it had weighed him down. Jemma had wondered many times whether or not she should just leave it, but that would be a very obvious trail, and her father was better with his sword than she was with her knife, even when he was sick and so weak that it forced them to go about half as fast as she would like.

She didn’t want to wake him, but if he woke up and she was gone, he would try and follow her, incapable as he was. So she tapped his shoulder, gently. He must have felt, through the tap that this wasn’t a running day, and he woke slowly. She knew she had been a little rough with him, the last few days, but she had frantic with worry, sure that she would discover that she had forgotten something vital and would have to go back to Jerel for it, or else they would be caught by soldiers from Jerel, or been captured by one of the gangs everybody seemed so worried about. Some days she had shaken him awake and hurried him on without even asking how he felt.

His eyes seemed distracted, but after a long moment they focused on her face. Was it her imagination, or did the green seem less sharp then normal? She forced down her worries. This was the seventh day. They’d made it, or near enough. They’d be safe, and her father would be fine. He would be.

“Hello, Jemma,” he said. His voice sounded normal enough, “we stopped?”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, “yeah, we stopped, danpa. We’re…”

“Safe now?” she hesitated. He smiled, “We’re not safe, Jem. It will be a while before we’re safe.” Jemma shivered. He sounded like the voice of doom in the temple back home. He must have seen her reaction. “We aren’t safe,” he said, his voice more playful then it had been in a long time, “but we’re safer. And we’ll be even safer if we find out whether this little soggy piece of land is claimed already. You scout it out, I’ll see what we have left that’s dry.” Jemma touched her knife and nodded. Just having her father talking and making plans cheered her up. They could survive in the desolate place, if only something would go right.

Jemma walked about five minutes to the east. When she felt like she had gone a considerable distance, she turned to the right and headed south for a while. Then she made another right, and another, until she arrived at the same place she had first turned. On her walk, she encountered no markers, nothing that a respectable person would put up as a sign that they had taken this land as their own.  Still worried she’d missed something and recircled. Then she headed back to the place where they had slept that night. Her father, her danpa, had all their belongings spread out on the ground. He was sitting leaning against the tree, looking tired but alert. “I think we’re clear,” she said to him, “and I found a small clearing that seems to be relatively dry.”

“About the only thing that is in this cursed woods,” her father said. He sounded like his old sensible self. For the first time since they had run, Jemma saw him as himself, as Dann Calinim Krastis, the wife of Pedriga and the father of Jemma. He was a strong, able-bodied man, or he had been, with light brown hair and a large nose. The agreement among family members was that Jemma looked like her father, sharing his face, but had her mother’s eyes and hair, which was jet black. The whole trip, Jemma had been nearly dragging her father along, even though what he really needed was to stop and rest for several days. In Jerel, Dann would have been able to get to his full strength back within a week of his prison ordeal with food and rest, but here in Aeis, those things were as hard to come by as a dry spot in this woods. Jemma had been rushing them along as fast as she possibly could, worried about her father’s health, but also forgetting that his brain was still intact.

Dann had concluded that none of their things were totally dry. It seemed devastating, but then Jemma remembered that they didn’t really have that much anyway. They were wearing the only clothes they had brought with them, and everything else non-perishable could be wiped off with a rag—one cooking pot, an extra knife, flint and steel for lighting fires. The thing to be really worried about was the food. Jemma had been rationing it as much as she could, but in their flight they had needed to eat something or they would have collapsed. The meat was all gone, and the bread, which was actually not that wet, was nearly so. Their were several carrots left, and onions, but their food supply was another reason for them to stop their flight. Jemma couldn’t hunt while they were running. She stared sadly at the small pile, and then decided that shelter needed to come before food. It had rained lightly most nights of their journey, and Jemma didn’t think that all the wet was good for Dann’s illness, let alone their food. She needed to construct some form of house, and then she would hunt. “I’ll go start to get a hut up,” she said, standing up.

“Jemma,” said Dann, “think. Before you even begin to build a shelter, this land must be ours. It would be a ridiculous waste of time if we were to set up a shelter without marking our claim first.” He was right. Jemma sighed. She didn’t really think that somebody would find them before she could build a lean-to, but it would not help their mission if they had to move again because they hadn’t set up the right markers. That would certainly not prove that she was capable of taking care of her father in this crazy place.

“Here,” Dann said, holding out a long scarp of cloth, “rip this up.” It was a piece of his prison uniform, the one he’d been forced to wear in the dungeon in Jerel. Jemma had brought him warmer clothes, to change into, but clearly he’d decided to keep the filthy rag. Jemma took it from him and glared just a little. If they were caught because of some hidden tracker or something in his old costume, it wouldn’t be her fault.

She headed east again, and followed roughly the same path she’d taken before when she was looking for someone else’s markers. This time, though, she left a trail of her own markers—pieces of cloth tied to trees. They were a little hard to see, but nobody played by the rules in Aeis. Most claims they’d seen had been marked like this. The one who had been here longest had a fence surrounding their property. They had walked quietly past those places, even though Jemma was longing to ask for food. She knew better though. In Jerel, if you knocked on a door asking for food, the worst you could get was a threat, if you were careful and didn’t go to the really big houses, the ones who were obviously government-related. Here in Aeis, though, you could never tell what kind of person owned a piece of land, because most people hadn’t been here long enough to build characteristic houses. Still, the longer someone had been here, the more likely they were to have gotten involved in one of those gangs everybody seemed so scared of. It was better to steer clear of the fences.

Dann was waiting by the tree where she had left him. It scared her, a little, to see him sitting and waiting for her to make the next move. It didn’t seem right. She tried to sound cheerful, for her own sake if not for his. She said, “I’ve placed the markers. Let’s move to the clearing.”

“You’ll have to help me stand,” he said. That shocked her. He must have seen her fear, so he said, “I’m just trying to preserve my strength, Jemm. I’ll be fine in a few days. All that running was a little hard on me.” Jemma knew he didn’t mean it to sound pointed, but would one day of running have kept them from being captured? Maybe she had pushed them too hard. She was surprised at the amount of weight he put on her as he got up, but she brushed away the suspicions that crossed her mind. It would be alright as soon as she got the shelter up and went hunting. If they could survive in Jerel, they could survive here, although it was a totally different type of survival. She told herself these truths as they hobbled to the clearing. It may have been a form of lying, but it was all she could do to keep hope alive within herself.

The clearing was fairly small, but it was dry. There were many large trees surrounding it that had long, over-reaching branches that sheltered the clearing fairly well. Jemma led Dann to sit on the ground leaning against a tree. He looked gray and solemn, but he said, “I’ll get a fire going while you build our new home, Jemma.” She didn’t need any further instruction. She had been itching to build the shelter. Somehow, she was sure it would shake the uneasy feeling of still being chased. She went off into the trees. It wasn’t long before she came to another clearing. This one was lower, and wetter. It was littered with branches, which were all wet, but they would work. Jemma smiled and started to gather them. She was even humming as she filled her arms until she realized how odd it was that so many downed tree limbs, for that was what she had assumed they were, were all together in the clearing. Slowly her smile faded. There was no way these could all be from a tree, because there were no trees that looked as though they had been recently attacked by some kind of major storm. These branches must have been placed there—by someone.

Could she have missed a marker? It was possible, if they were as hard to see as her own. Could it be that this was the woodpile for a person living on a nearby claim? If so, then that person was about as smart as a squirrel that eats all his nuts in the fall. If this was someone’s woodpile, than it was useless now, with all the wood as wet as if they’d been dunked in a pond. They probably wouldn’t care if she took it.

Then a panic seized her. If there was any chance of them being found by some one, they had to leave. She had to leave, gather up their few belongings, head east again. She had to tell Dann…

Dann. There was no way he could travel, whatever he said. This truth calmed her, allowed he to think. What would Dann say? His voice floated into her head. Think, Jemma. Whoever they are, they should not have come if they were going to leave their wood out in the open. They had no markers, nothing saying this was theirs. It probably belongs to someone who left, or is the remains of a hut that was abandoned. I would say that you can take the wood. Jemma closed her eyes and breathed out once. It was alright. She didn’t need to tell the real Dann where she’d gotten the wood, or the exact circumstances in which it was found. She held tighter to the wood she’d collected. This wood was hers, now, and it was going to stay hers.

Jemma made many trips back and forth from the mysterious wood pile to the clearing. On each trip, she tried to trample down every plant growing on the route she was taking, to make a path. The woodpile had taught her to make sure to make it very clear—she and Dann were living here, and intended on staying. When she had a fairly large pile of branches, she picked out the highest point in the clearing. Using a stick, she marked out an area, rectangular in shape that was about three feet wide and six feet long. With her knife, she dug a row of small holes along each side. Then she surveyed the pile of branches and sorted them into thick and sturdy vs. thin and bendy. Using the thick pile, she planted each stick in a hole and packed in the dirt around the ends to hold them up. That done, she took the four longest, straightest sticks in the pile and looked around for something to tie them with. Her father, who had been peeling their last two potatoes with the spare knife, looked up to see why she’d stopped.

“Do you need something, Jemm?”

“Yeah. I vine, or something, to tie things together.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ball of twine. “Use this.”

She stared at it. “Where did you get it?” she asked, taking it from him.

He smiled grimly. “One little trick of the Jerelian government. Some prisoners are so scared of the torture chambers that they will do anything to avoid it. In an act of false kindness, every prisoner is given something they could hang themselves with, theoretically.”

Jemma was confused. “Why would they do that? Don’t they risk losing much information they could have gotten through torture?”

“Yes, they do.” He paused, “the prisoners don’t know that if they take their own lives, they will be tried as usual and always found guilty, no matter what evidence there is. And, their families won’t get anything, not even the usual compensation.” In other words, if someone chose to hang themselves, they would retain their secrets but leave their family absolutely nothing. Jemma stared down at the ball of twine. What would have happened if Dann had decided to do away with his life? He wouldn’t have, having worked in the government and known all its secrets, but what if he’d decided that he would have been found guilty anyway, and that Jemma would have been fine living with her aunt Nerina? He hadn’t ever needed to, since Jemma had broken him out of prison before he’d been there two weeks, and this ball of twine might well prove to be lifesaving, but she still had to resist a strong urge to throw this latest reminder of Jerelian cruelty in the mud, where it could be forgotten forever.

About half an hour later, Jemma was standing in front of a flat-roofed hut. It was only about three feet tall, three feet wide, and five feet long. She’d used the hated twine to tie the four long sticks along the tops of the sticks that were driven into the ground. Then, she’d laid the remainder of the branches across the top to form a roof. It was small on the inside, but large enough for both of them to sleep side by side. If they were too cold, Jemma thought there might be room for a small fire as well. It was a long way from the cozy home they’d left at home, but it would work. If they ended up staying here, and Jemma was sure they would, she would make it larger. For now, small was best. Being squashed together would keep them warm. Now she just needed to go hunting.

Jemma stood up and brushed her hands against her clothes in an attempt to seem on top of things. It was still before noon, and she had made good time, but what she was most worried about was having enough time to hunt. Before she knew more about their neighbors, if they had any, she would have to hunt within their borders, or near them any way. Hunting would have been a challenge even without the restrictions; she was underfed and tired and without her good bow, the large one, which she’d had to leave at home. She’d brought her smaller one instead, and only four arrows, and she wasn’t sure of the kind of animals who lived in this woods. It seemed pretty similar to the woods near her house, but she hadn’t exactly been a first-rate hunter in those woods either. Well. The chances of bringing home a large meal were doubtful, but at least her clothes, dirty as they were, would blend into the scenery. She picked up her bow and a few arrows from the ground, and touched the knife at her belt to make sure it was there.

“Be careful,” her father said, “We don’t know for sure what’s out there.”

“I won’t go beyond the markers,” Jemma said, “yell if you need me.” She smiled. “I’ll be nearby, you can be sure of that.” She turned at headed west, in the opposite direction of the woodpile clearing.

“Jemma?” she turned. “Take this.” Dann was holding the twine, which she’d tossed on the ground after she was done with it. She took it, grudgingly. She hadn’t wanted to become anymore indebted to the hated twine, but it would be good for traps.

Half an hour later, she was kneeling beside a tree on the border of their claim. She had seen nothing so far, except for a bird in a tree that had dodged her arrow. She’d had to go and retrieve it, which meant that she’d disturbed the peace of the woods and had probably frightened off whatever animals were nearby. She had never been very patient; it was one reason she disliked hunting. Growing up without a mother since she was six, she was used to being in motion. There had always been things to do, things to take care of. She’d lived with Dann in a small house in a little village on the outskirts of Va, one of Jerel’s main agricultural towns. It would seem that a place for growing food wouldn’t ever need food, but actually Jemma had never had any trouble selling her own produce from their garden at Va’s monthly marketday. Va’s center was about a two hour’s walk from her village, which had the official name of Rose’s Garden and was just called Rose by most people, but there was a large cart, called the vegetable cart, which would take anybody to Va for only a coin. Jemma had used it to get to school until she was thirteen. It always smelled like smoke and rotting food, but it was much cheaper than the stagecoach that went back and forth between the towns just as often for the high price of three coins a day.

Jemma was startled from her memories when a rabbit hopped by. It stopped just in front of the tree and sat for a minute, nose twitching. Slowly, Jemma lifted her bow from her shoulder and aimed at the rabbit. Then, suddenly, it moved forward quickly. Jemma released her arrow, meant for the head, just as it leaped forward. The arrow caught it o it’s back, piercing but not killing it. The rabbit thrashed around. Jemma shot another arrow through the head to kill it. When it was still, she removed the arrows and wiped them with a leaf, grimacing as she did so. She’d been hunting for years, but she hadn’t ever liked the killing part.

She thought about staying and seeing what else she could get, but just the one rabbit had taken a while, and she didn’t want Dann to worry. Besides, she hadn’t eaten anything that morning and was hungry. One rabbit would provide meat for today and tomorrow, if they were careful. She carried the rabbit by one leg back to their clearing. Dann had a small fire going and was boiling something in a pot. Jemma looked closer and saw that it was water.

Where did you get that?”

“I didn’t over exert myself, Jemm.”

“You’re already over exerted, dapa, you didn’t need to waste all of your energy dragging yourself to the stream when I could go there easily.” There was a small stream that they’d followed to the spot where they had slept last night.

“Jemma,” Dann’s voice was patient, “It’s just water that was collected in the large leaves of this tree. Relax. We’ll get along fine; we don’t have to move anymore. You don’t need to be so protective.” His words stung a little bit—it was as though he’d figured out that she hadn’t really been thinking of him as a thinking person over the last seven days. She bit her lip. It was true that they didn’t have to move, but she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that was following her.

She collected water from the stream and was about to sit down and skin the rabbit when she remembered another task she’d thought of while she was waiting for the rabbit. Seeing the little grey pieces of cloth that she had fashioned a border line had made her uneasy. It was clear that they wouldn’t turn away someone who could come barreling through the woods on the run from someone or something; they had probably done just that on the way here. Jemma didn’t really mind if people passed through her land if they were just moving on, but she didn’t want to have to deal with whatever was chasing them, in that scenario. She needed to build a fence, and that was something she didn’t relish. There was no way her father could do such physically demanding work, and she wasn’t really up to it either. Still, it must be done, and the sooner the better. There was a good piece of the day left, and their land was small, she could walk around the perimeter in twenty minutes. It would be a very simple fence, just some long sticks connecting the trees. With that thought came another problem: she didn’t have any nails or anything to firmly attach the wood to the trees. There was the twine, but it was running low and she needed it for other things, such as trapping animals or constructing further buildings. She would have to secure the wood as best as she could, and hope that it would be enough warning for a person coming through the woods. The animals, she hoped, wouldn’t be turned away by it. That would be just her luck—keep out the people and get no good game afterwards.

Dann was willing to skin and clean the rabbit, and Jemma went off to the woodpile. She had used most of the good pieces from the pile on the hut, and therefore had to go search for downed tree limbs and the like. Her search took her well beyond the borders of their claim, because whomever had gathered the wood for the woodpile had pretty well cleaned out the area around it. After an hour’s ramblings, Jemma had come up with an armful of wood and had gone fairly far to the south. The woods seemed to be thicker there, which wasn’t really the news she wanted. She had no map, and therefore no idea where they were. She didn’t know if they were right in the middle of a huge forest, or had been following a thin strip of woods the whole way from Jerel. She tried to picture the map in her head. It had been so long since she’d gone to school-about three or four years-and it was with difficulty that she could picture Jerel and the other countries. All she knew was that there was a fairly large country to the south, called Kana, and Jerel’s long-time enemy, Kai, on the east side of Aeis, which was large and shaped like a thumb. Aeis had been created fairly recently, about fifty years ago, to isolate Jerel and Kai, which just couldn’t help waring with each other.  She knew nothing about the landscape in Aeis—one of it’s “free land” qualities kept outside countries from producing maps.

Jemma re-entered their land and began to set up the fence. It was tedious work, balancing the wood on the branches of the trees. After she had set up seven sticks, her supply ran out. She had another five or so nearby in a pile. It took her a while to find the pile, but not long to place the pieces. She looked back at the ‘fence’ she’d erected. It was fairly long, but hard to see and not very stable. She supposed it would help, some, should a person come through the woods, but it didn’t really boost her self-esteem very much.

Suddenly, the whole absurdity of their situation broke upon her like a waterfall bursting free of a home-mad dam. She’d made such a dam several years ago, one summer when she was no more than twelve years old. She was an alright swimmer, having been taught that year in school. All the children her age had been taken to a pond outside of Va. They had taught everyone to swim, and encouraged them to practice over the summer at any ponds they could find near their homes. Jemma had gone home sad, knowing there was no such pond in their woods, but a few weeks later she hatched the brilliant plan of damming the stream behind her house. She didn’t ask for any advice, but built it herself, with wood she found nearby. She was granted a meager seven days before the stream put too much pressure on the dam and it collapsed.

Now, like that stream, despair, which had held off for the seven days in which they’d run, burst upon her while she stood looking at her meager, pitiful attempt at a fence. Here they were, in the woods, with no idea where they were, and a limited supply of food, as long as Jemma was too afraid to venture out into the woods beyond the fence. Her father, who was a much better hunter than she, was too weak to move, really, and not likely to have a miraculous recovery unless he could get a good abundance of food. Jemma also didn’t really know what was in the water they were drinking and how to purify it besides just boiling it. Starting a home was much harder than she’d thought it would be when you didn’t know anything about your surroundings. It was her ignorance, all her ignorance, which was blocking her.

Jemma felt like bursting into tears. Surviving in this place would be a hard enough, but surviving and thriving, moving on from a hut in the woods to some kind of secure home, would be impossible. She knelt down on the ground and rocked back and forth to keep from crying. She put her head in her hands. How could she do this impossible task?

“Oh, lady Kyrine,” Jemma breathed between her fingers, “ladies Kyrine and Calin and—and Pedriga,” she gave a slight gasp, hearing her mother’s name, “help me.”

Two

I pray because I’ve been taught to pray. In Jerel, Usome is the national religion. Nearly everybody is required to worship it. I’ve known only one person who wasn’t Usomen. A girl in my class at school when I was only eleven. She was Mashomi, that religion where there isn’t really anything you pray too, you just respect the land. She was a quiet girl, with soft brown hair that had wide curls and large pale eyes. I’ve forgotten her name. We were friends, kind of. I didn’t think so, but she must have. She gave me a flower at school one day. I asked only one thing, “why?” she said, I remember her quiet voice, “because you’ve been almost like a friend to me.” Then she leaned in closer, and whispered, “we’re going to Aeis, the free land, where no one will look at me funny.” Her face seemed so happy when she said it. I never saw her again, but I hope she made it, that she found her Aeis. When I set off on that journey to rescue my father, I was thinking of him, but also at the back of my mind was the only person I knew who’d gone to Aeis, the Mashomi girl with the pale eyes.

 

Jemma sat quietly for a long time after she prayed. At some point she became aware of the notion that she wasn’t breathing. In a slow, sleepy way, she explored the idea. She was alive, this she knew, and she was relaxed—or was she? Her body was no longer tensed as it had been when she was crying in pure desperation, but it was alert, and her mind was sharp. Her breathing—for she was breathing—was slow and even, and oddly—silent. She was hungry, not in her stomach, but in her mental stomach, knowing that she must eat soon but her mind had repressed the ache in her belly in order for her to—what? There was something she needed to do, something vital. She listened for a sign, something to explain why she was here, here in the woods, waiting. She listened, but all she heard was the woods.

It was an odd sensation, hearing the woods. Her own silent breathing was inaudible, and the sounds of everything else—everything outside of herself—touched her mind with a clear reality. She was waiting, but she wasn’t bored—no, never bored—nor tired, for how could she be tired or bored when she was here, listening to the woods, enthralled as though she was meeting a new person, a new being, who was the most important and fascinating being that had ever been.

And as she listened, Jemma had the strangest feeling that she was listening to her own soul for the first time.

            I had never met myself before. I had known my faults, and those faults had blinded me to what I really was, what I could be, that serene  calm inside that was always there, always underneath whatever I was besides it. I met myself, and it felt strange and new. Yet, at the same time, it was old, and wise. And one other thing—it fit. It felt right, this strange new-old piece of me. It fit, with where I was. It was a doorway to the woods.

Jemma opened her eyes. She was afraid, somehow, that this would all go away, vanish, and become simply the past. She opened her eyes slowly, cautiously, feeling as though she was lifting one lash at a time. And at first, the light overwhelmed her. She gasped, a silent gasp, and her hands clenched, trying to seize that peace inside of her. She could not find it, and for a minute she was drowning, and inside her head she screamed, a silent scream, and suddenly a voice said

Breathe

She breathed, and with that breath her soul returned, with a quiet rush, and a click into place. With that click, Jemma knew she had found a truth: it is possible to live a life of color and sound and speed while keeping your soul inside of you, using it as a quiet voice, whispering to you the sound of comfort, of happiness and of peace.

 

Three

Along with her new soul, Jemma had found a new way to hunt, a better way. She found that if she sat and quieted her breathing and listened to the woods, she could sit perfectly still for hours and she wouldn’t get impatient as she used to. Finding her soul didn’t improve her aim with an arrow, but it was largely thanks to her strange experience in the woods that kept them alive for the first week. That, and the little stream. Jemma found that it was full of fish, and she spent two days trying to catch them with her hands with no luck. Then one day she came back from setting up the rest of her fence and found that her father had built a net. He had used up the rest of the twine in doing so, but it was alright because he had, in turn, discovered a new and exciting resource that could fairly well replace the twine. On one side of the clearing, there was a tree unknown to them, because it hadn’t grown in Jerel. It had little, useless leaves and spindly branches, and so Jemma had ignored it as being useless. Dann had discovered it’s one incredible property— thin vines that snaked down the trunk between the branches. He had been watching it for some time, trying to decide if it was worth the health of the tree to pull down the vines when he noticed that the vines had begun to drop. He collected the vines on the ground around the tree and used them to make part of the net.

He explained it all to Jemma, who stared at him for a minute and then ran off to try and find more of the vine trees. She found three, a little spread out but easily within their land. The trees were fairly easy to spot because they were so ridiculous looking, and Jemma carried about seven vines back to the clearing after twenty minutes. She dumped them in a pile by the hut and then snatched up the net and rushed to the stream. The net was fairly long, and Jemma stretched it between two little baby trees on opposite sides of the stream. Of course, this meant that she had to walk through the stream, but she was wearing her rubber ankle-high shoes that they had escaped in, and it didn’t really bother her. It was a nuisance, though; Jemma put a footbridge on her list of things to build, number one being a larger hut. The little one was quite cramped. Jemma had a feeling that they would need the warmth once the winter came, but for now they could use some more space. Maybe it would give them the feeling of having an actual home, and help shake their similarity to a family of squirrels preparing for the winter.

They had been settled—if the word even worked in this situation—for over two weeks. Jemma couldn’t help feeling proud of this measly little section of land that they’d managed to carve out of the woods for themselves. She knew there was not much to be proud of—a tiny hut, a handmade fishing net, a collection of sticks that somewhat resembled a fence? It was true that the vine development was a vast asset—if the net worked, Jemma might be able to spend less time hunting and more time building—but they would still be limping halfheartedly along if they remained so isolated. They couldn’t build the larger house Jemma dreamed of with two small knifes. They could feed themselves, it was true, but Jemma had no idea where they were, where to get new things they needed. An axe, for example. Jemma longed for an axe, or some more clothes, or a thick needle carved out of bone that she’d been stupid enough to leave behind, even though it would have fit easily in the basket. In a town, maybe somebody would have a map they’d drawn. Maps of Aeis were forbidden in any country, but inside Aeis, there were no rules. People could go around, ruthlessly slaughtering everything in sight, and nobody would care. By law, there were no letters sent to Aeis from outside, but Jemma had heard of people who you could pay to run letters or supplies back and forth.

Jemma finished setting up the net. She surveyed it for a minute. It was rudimentary, but probably it could catch some fish. She headed back to the clearing. Now that the net was set up, she could hunt around for some more wood and enlarge the hut. She’d used up all the sticks she’d had in reserve on the fence. The twine, to, was almost gone. She had some left, and would use it on the hut, but then it would run out. She really couldn’t say that she was sorry. She hated that twine, hated it with all of her soul, the dark bits that floated out of sight whenever she listened. The twine had come to represent Jerel, with all of its problems and prisons. When the twine was gone, maybe she could forget that wretched country, leave it behind. Maybe then the little burning coal in her stomach would dissipate. Yet she knew it wouldn’t. The twine had been too valuable, too easily used. When it was used up, it would be out of sight, but it would still be there, woven into the foundation of their new home. How, Jemma wondered, could they be safe when they had all of Jerel’s treachery and danger as a base point? How could they be at peace?

Back at the clearing, Dann had gathered a small pile of thin logs. As Jemma had figured out how to hunt better, he had grown in strength. Now he could walk easily and lift small things. Jemma still wouldn’t let him help hunt, and she didn’t really want him tromping all over the woods either. “Hey, dapa,” she said to him, “thanks. The net will work. I can feel it.”

He raised his eyebrows, “and since when have you developed a talent for foreseeing the success of such a homemade endeavor?”  Jemma smiled. It was so nice to have her father back. The first few days they had been here, he’d seemed so distant, as though he was reliving the flight, again and again and again. Only in the last few days had he come back and been his old self. An exchange like this would have been a miracle ten days ago.

“I’d like to put another room on the house,” he said. Jemma paused. He waited for a minute, and then said, “Jemm? Sound like a plan?”

“What? Oh, yes, dapa. I think a larger hut would be good.” She emphasized the word hut. Then, just to make her point, she sighed and said, “I wish we had an axe. Then maybe I could make us a house.” She saw a flicker of something pass over Dann’s face, but he said nothing. Jemma changed her tone to something happier and said, “you stay and start the room, I’ll look for more of the wood. Feel free to use the twine if you want, I’m sick of seeing it laying around. We might as well use it.” Then she turned and strode off into the woods, not stopping to see Dann’s face, not pausing to consider where she was going. She just headed off, away, fast, before something awful passed through her mind.

Jemma worked furiously, tramping through the woods, wandering far beyond the border lines they had set up. As she worked, she beat back tears, diving so thoroughly into her work that she was sure nothing could find her, no memory or wish or thought…

But her fiery shield of anger was no match for a cool, calm determined mind inspired by the person she loved more than anyone. Dann’s words played over and over in her mind, and with them rose the memory of a summer, nine years ago.

“I’d like to put another room on the house.”

            The day was fading, giving way to a soft sunset the cast a warm glow on the three of them. Dann, Jemma, and Pedriga, sitting at a table on a porch off of the west side of the house, the back side. Dann had built this porch when Jemma was born, and it’s twin on the other side of the house. The sun landings, he called them. When the weather was warm, the family rarely ate inside, preferring instead to dine on simple meals that were somehow made more elegant by the rising or the setting sun. None of them ever slept in—the sunrises were too precious to waste. There was work to be done, Jemma had to go to school, but every morning a little bit of time stopped, let them sit and relax. They didn’t always talk, just sat in silence or with very little words, basking in the promise of another day.

            Their house was small, a long room in the front that was basically the common area, and a kitchen and a bedroom behind that. A ladder in the bedroom went up to a loft that extended over both back rooms. Jemma slept up there, with all the dried vegetables. When people came to visit, everyone ate inside, at the dining table in the large room. They shared the sun landings with nobody. That was their own little refuge.

            Jemma was seven that summer, full of life and light. She watched her parents that night, saw the sparks of joy that seemed to flicker between them. Her father, her dapa, Dann Calinim Krastis. His name, as with all Jerelian names, signified who his mother, (Calin) and his father, (Krasti) had been. He would have the same name throughout his life, whereas her mother, Pedriga Haloril Dannez, lost her father’s name and gained her husband’s name when she married. Jemma’s full name, Jemma Pedrigal Dannis, would likely change sometime.

            The seven-year-old Jemma watched her father as he brushed a curl away from her mother’s face. She watched as her mother smiled back, in silence, moving her black lock behind her ear. She saw the happiness in her father’s eyes and the contentment in the lines of her mother’s face. She closed her eyes and held that picture there, her parents, as happy as she’d ever seen them in her young life.

            Jemma heard her father say the words that turned the moment back to the second, the minute, the hour, the day in which it belonged, the words that seem to mark the beginning of the end of that golden time.

              “I’d like to put another room on the house.”

Jemma slowly came out of her mind and looked around. She was holding an armful of sticks, all about the size to build a hut. She seemed to have been asleep, though her flashback couldn’t have taken but five minutes. She looked behind her and saw a path of crushed undergrowth leading back to a large pile of wood. Blinking, she carried three armfuls back to clearing. Dann, who appeared to be waiting patiently, had untangled the vines from the pile and was hanging them from a tree. He turned when he heard her. She set the third armful down when he spoke.

“I’m sorry, Jemma.” Three words, and she knew that he knew as well what had caused her to storm off into the forest, for he must have heard her crashing through the trees. Her mind cleared, and she saw that Dann wasn’t really to blame. She said, rather shortly, “It’s fine.”

“No,” Dann responded, “no, Jemma. We haven’t spoken of her, and it’s my fault.”

“I’m the problem,” said Jemma, absent-mindedly tugging on her hair. Her mother’s hair, minus the curls. “I’ve been holding it in. But I suppose it’s too late now. It doesn’t even bother me anymore, I mean, I’m not dying of grief.” It sounded false, but in part, it was true. She really couldn’t remember her mother. It was too painful.

Dann looked at her for a long moment, then, “Okay. That’s good, because I couldn’t live without you, Jemma.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said, “You really need me to get the wood for this hut.” She smiled, Dann reached for the wood, and they built the new room in silence.

 

Four

The net worked. It caught about three fish a day, which were small but tasty. They no longer had to worry daily about food. Jemma now slept in the new room, and it was so warm at night they didn’t need a fire. Dann hung the vines from the ceiling in the hut, and as they dried, the outside, which was very stringy and tough, dried in a peculiar way. Everything dried away, except for the strings, which could now be peeled off very easily. Jemma discovered that they were very strong and could be used as thread for stitching together furs. She still had no needle, but she carefully pierced holes in the fur with a knife and ran the thread through that. It took a good deal of time, but it was effective.

About a week after they had put on the new room, Jemma came back from hunting with a dead rabbit and found Dann sitting, looking exhausted, against the vine tree. His face was white and he breathed as though this was his last chance for air. Jemma dropped the rabbit, sure that something awful had happened. She hurried over and he waved her aside.

“I’m fine. Just over-exerted myself is all.” He gestured toward the hut, “I added a room. I thought we could use a little more space.” The hut now had a front room that was taller than the other two rooms. “I thought we could use it to dry the meat,” her father said, “cook them so they’ll keep. It seemed a fair exchange for my rest.” His rest? He was losing more than his rest. He was losing several days’ worth of rest. It wasn’t the building of the room that had been the problem, it was the search for wood when Jemma had so recently cleaned it out. Jemma glared at him, effectively vaporizing his smile, and went into the new room. It was about as large as the other two rooms, three feet by five feet, but it was a whole two feet taller, five feet, so Jemma could walk in easily and only had to bend a little. There was a small pile of wood in the corner. Jemma moved the vines from her room to the new room in stony silence. Then she went outside and sat by her father. He was no longer gasping but was still white. Jemma was quiet for a minute and then said, “a lot depends on your health,” she almost added ‘dapa’ but didn’t. “I appreciate the planning, but you could have at least asked me to get the wood for you.”

Dann didn’t say anything for a while. Then he said, in perfect seriousness, “You grew up too fast, Jemma. You’re denying me my whole older-than-ten parenting experience.”

Jemma didn’t say anything, but went over to the rabbit she had dropped and handed it to him. “Here. If you are so recovered, skin the rabbit.” She couldn’t keep a little sarcasm out of her voice as she said it. Nobody had asked for her father to be caught, and it wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t strong, but sometimes she hated him for it.

It was the heart of the summer now, and the nights were hot. Jemma worried daily about the meat spoiling, and finally Dann, recovered from his little act of foolishness, took action. He built a fire in the large room—for that was what they called the new, tall front storage room—and hung the meat from the rafters. Jemma, under his instruction, set up logs and sticks around the fire, so that there was a little column in the middle of the room. There was one hole in the column, and that was the door Dann used to add wood to the fire. Jemma blocked it off with a piece of bark she stripped from a tree. It was cruel, but the tree was dying anyway, and Jemma felt they had been rather kind to the trees, not cutting down any of them or anything—not that they could without an axe.

Dann made the fire with green wood, the kind that smoked a lot, especially wood from the Kedra tree. Named after one of the gods, this tree was very common in Jerel and popular because it burned very smokey and was therefore perfect for smoking meat, which almost everyone in Jerel did, at least everyone who couldn’t afford to buy fresh meat all the time. The process took all day, and all night. Dann and Jemma took turns sitting up and refueling the fire that night. By the end of it, Jemma readily admitted that it was easily the worst night she’d spent since they’d fled. At least on the other miserable nights she’d fallen asleep quickly, but now she had to sit up in a hot, hot night with a fire in a smoky hut? Not fun. Not fun at all. She had a feeling Dann let her oversleep his watch, but she didn’t really care. She was tired of playing the gallant survivor. So she let him let her sleep.

It may have been a miserable night, but it was worth it for the meat. It wouldn’t spoil so easily now, even if it wasn’t as delicious. They didn’t eat it though. They saved it—hanging in the front room with the vines. Jemma still went hunting about every other day, on the days they didn’t eat fish. A few days later, Jemma shot and killed a rabbit, squirrel, and wild turkey all on the same day. They smoked it all but the squirrel, which they ate. Slowly, they were saving food for the winter, because they couldn’t get fish when the river froze, and many animals would hide.

Dann was stronger now, and to help keep in shape he walked every day. One day he came home with a handful of roots he’d dug up. Jemma recognized them as a Hakori plant, one with many roots that were edible. To celebrate the discovery, she cooked a stew with meat and Hakori roots. It took the whole plant, but Dann said he had found a whole garden of them, clustered around many trees. The next day, both of them walked together, and as they talked, the gathered. Hakori roots, Jegh roots, Yenni leaves, even a handful of wild berries. All were edible, all savable. Dann hung the roots and the leaves in the front room. The roots would dry and the leaves would shrivel up, but they would be wonderful flavoring and nutritious in soup. They had now been here at least a season in Jerel time. There were seven seasons in the year, one for each god and an extra which was called the people’s season. Sometimes babies were named for the season they were born in, but not always, otherwise there would be far too many people with the same six names.

Generally, people were named for something beloved by the god of their season. ‘Dann’ meant earth, and he was born in the season of Kedra, lord of water and therefore land and the farmers. ‘Jemma’ didn’t mean anything, but she was born in the people’s season, so her parents could call her practically anything. Pedriga, of course, was the name of the goddess of spirit and the season in which Jemma’s mother was born. She had been small and unlikely to live, and when she did live, her parents gave thanks to the goddess by naming her. Jemma’s aunt, Nerina, was born in the season of Kyrine, goddess of protection. ‘Nerina’ meant rose, the favorite flower of the goddess. But Jemma’s cousins, twins called Calin and Talin, had the exact names of the gods of women (Calin) and men (Talin). That was because they were born, Talin first, on the day that was halfway in the season of Talin and halfway in the season of Calin.

The people of Jerel worshipped all their gods at different times. In each season, there was a festival for the god of the season and there was a huge festival in the people’s season celebrating all the gods. Usome believers from all over (people even came from Seli, many miles away) and from every country came for the people’s festival. Each part of it was dazzling in it’s splendor and beauty, but the last day, the day of Kurn, god of fire and the symbol of Jerel’s might, was reputated for being the largest, most fantastic celebration of a single deity in the known world. Jerel had six gods, one each representing fire, water, spirit, domestic protection, men, and women, and it was dearly devoted to them.

 

As the days grew hot and then gradually less so, and their pile of food grew until Jemma had some hope that they could get through the winter without totally starving, something happened. The clearing began to feel well-worn and natural, like the shoes Jemma had received when she was five and that first hurt and pinched but gradually became so comfortable that she could run and run and run as though they were her bare feet. The paths to the border smoothed so that there was no longer any need for Jemma to wear shoes when she rushed about looking for wood. Dann saved every pelt of every animal she killed, and soon they both had fur to sleep on and Jemma was busy sewing fur together in preparation for snow clothes.

 

Five

Easiness is such a silly thing. I don’t mean easiness like when something is simple and easy to accomplish, but easiness like when you are comfortable, and you don’t worry, and sometimes even think you are invincible and safe. I should know better—I’ve learned that there is no such thing as safety. But easiness is so tricky. You can think that you are wary and on your guard, and then when the blow hits, the first thing you do is blink. And gasp. And wonder if everything is a dream, which of course it isn’t. Easiness is the dream. And when you’ve been dreaming too long, reality will take you by the shoulders and shake you and shake you until you wake up.

 

Jemma came back to the hut with a wild turkey on the day everything changed. It was a dead wild turkey, of course, and Jemma had been proud of herself. It was the first one she’d been able to shoot in the neck, something she had been trying to do for some time. Her eventual goal was to hit everything in the eye, and the eye only, so that if they ever figured out if there were people nearby and if they would like someone to hunt for them, Jemma could maybe earn money if her kills were professional enough. She was thinking this over, contemplating how she could tell Dann without gloating, and also listening to her stomach growl when she saw the man.

He was standing with his back to her, talking to Dann in a low, threatening voice. Jemma ducked behind a tree, no making any sound. Her hand went to her knife in her belt as she studied him. His clothes were dirty and ripped, and she could smell him from behind the tree. He smelled of the most evil of plants, the one that ate little green shoots. It had five small petals, generally a shade of yellow, surrounding four larger ones of a vivid red. The plant fed itself by feasting on little plants and grass around it. What was the name again? Duronji. Jemma felt a little shiver as she heard the name in her mind. The meal of a Duronji was a fascinating thing to watch. The plant would slowly lean over, until it was directly above the lower one. Then it would close the center petals around the stem so fast it was hard to see it happen if you blinked. The edges of the petals looked harmless, but in reality they were razor sharp. The plant would slowly right itself, as it digested the meal. It would keep it’s lips closed for about two weeks until it had sucked every nutrient out of the food.

The smell of the Duronji was from the energy it released when it moved. It was a hideous smell, and one that Jemma associated with a predator in pursuit.

Jemma listened as the man said, “now, where is she? Where is the girl, the one who has caused so much trouble?”

Dann seemed calm, but he was watching the ground behind the man as opposed to the man’s face. His knife was lying there, on the ground. Jemma guessed the man had tossed it away, and Dann’s sword was in the hut. He was defenseless, for now. His voice was steady but quiet as he said, “she left. I am alone.”

“Oh please,” the man said, “that’s pathetic. How could you have come all the way from Jerel by yourself, built that hut, stayed alive? You couldn’t have. It would be impossible.”

“I didn’t say she didn’t help me, hasn’t helped me,” said Dann, as he caught sight of Jemma, “I only said she left. Went to look for people.”

“She’ll be back, though,” the man said lazily, “she’ll be back. I can wait. After all, there is plenty here to entertain me.” His eyes narrowed and he advanced on Dann, drawing a knife.

Jemma leapt out from behind the tree, her own knife in hand, ready to fight. As she did, two things happened. The man turned, snarling, Dann scrambled inside the hut for the sword, and the turkey in Jemma’s left hand swung around and whacked the man on the head. The beak of the dead turkey gashed him on the head, and as he stared at her, Jemma stuck her knife in his middle.

Dann came out from the hut to see Jemma holding a bloody knife over the head of the dying man, commanding him, “why did you seek us?”

“Payment,” he replied, “ordered. Leader says, I do. He says kill the man, bring the girl. So I do.” He moved his knife arm as though trying, still, to accomplish his mission, and then his murderous stare relaxed.

Jemma let out a breath, and then turned around and gasped. Dann was sitting there, blood spilling out of the wound on his thigh from the assassin’s last knife.

>>>

            Dann managed to stay conscience for three days, and just as Jemma was hoping that they might be able to get away with nothing but a wound this time, the fever hit. Instead of spending a sweaty few days and then diving into never-ending sleep, as was usual with wound fever, Dann held out for less than a day after the fever struck and then collapsed. It was as though he’d been holding it off and when he was finally out of willpower, it all came down on him at the same time. Jemma kept his forehead wet and fed him the thinnest broth she could that still had some nutrition in it to keep him hydrated. While he was still awake, she gave him the entire wild turkey in pieces, and later she was glad that she did, because when he was delirious and out of it, she could only give him anything more than watery broth when he was awake, which wasn’t often.

She only went hunting once in the five days after the assassin came, and it was only to get a squirrel. She needed a little meat, but it wasn’t for her. She hadn’t eaten fresh meat in a week, and she didn’t feel hungry. She was filled with dread, a deep sinking dread that made her insides as cold as Dann’s skin was hot. She had thought that they had passed the stage where she had to watch over him all the time for fear that he wouldn’t prove strong enough. The weeks after the prison escape—those had been tiring for both of them. Dann, she knew, had hated sitting around weaving nets and pulling roots as Jemma had to learn to hunt well so that she could feed them. She was happy to be able to shoot the squirrel out of it’s tree on the first try, so that she could get back to Dann, but she was sick of being the only healthy person.

As the squirrel fell from the tree with a barely audible thud, a voice said, “nice shot.” She drew an arrow and pointed it into the trees where the voice had come from, shouting, “who’s there?”

A man came out of the bushes. For a minute, she nearly shot him through the heart, sure that he was another assassin, the source of all her problems. For a full minute, she stood there, staring at him, trying to decide whether to shoot him anyway. They had been fine until strange people started coming into their woods—yes, their woods. This was theirs, and she wasn’t going to let strange men just come in and take it from them.

The man had raggedy clothes for sure, but his hair was washed and maybe combed a little. He had no knifes, just a sword, which didn’t look like it had been used very recently anyway. He had lines on his face, more lines than the man who had come before, the assassin, and Jemma thought she saw some gray in his beard, which was not as long as it would be if he was an assassin who had lived here long enough to grow one and didn’t care about shaving at all. This man’s beard was all along his jawline but not more than an inch long, and barely even that. He returned Jemma’s stare with a gaze that seemed fierce and prickly, like a porcupine, but not dangerous, and only as though he had tough skin, and not because he wished her serious harm. Jemma kept her arrow ready, but lowered her tone a little and said, “what is your purpose here, stranger?” she meant for her voice to be intimidating, but it ended up sounding like something from a story her mother used to tell her at night.

The man retained his grim expression in reply. “The same as you, friend.”

“I am not your friend,” she said, “And I doubt that someone such as yourself could have an intent the same as mine.”

“I know of your intent in these woods, friend,” He said, almost smiling, “and I can assure you, mine would be the same if only you could allow it.”

“And what is that, sir?” As he began to speak, she released her arrow, lifting the bow upward as she did so. It almost went over his head, snagging his cap as it did. He turned to pick up the hat, and she spoke cold words to his back. “I’ll not let you anywhere near my father, stranger, and if you try and tell me you’re a healer of some kind the next arrow will be through your heart.”

Six

Jemma ground the squirrel meat into a paste, as thin a paste as any vegetable paste she’d already made. She covered it and set it aside. Then she sat Dann up and gave him a drink of water. He was delirious, but he swallowed obediently and opened his mouth for more. She didn’t give it to him, but the fact that he was willing to take water made the coming task easier. She eased him back into a sleeping position and crawled into the front room of the hut. The awful smell that had plagued it for days was fading, and she knew that now was the time to act. The remedy she was about to use was tricky, and she wanted to make sure she had it right. She took the two Duronji leaves from where they were buried in the corner and carried them back to her father’s bedside. She ground them up and set them next to the squirrel meat paste. She flattened both piles to make sure they were the right size. They were—the squirrel pile was twice as tall as the Duronji pile. She mixed them together with a generous amount of water in the broth bowl and sat Dann up again. She fed it to him, and once he had it all down she laid him back down again. The smell was almost enough to make her faint. The procedure she had just used was well known in Jerel, where the Duronji plants were rare and therefore famous. Legend said that the leaves of a Duronji plant, plucked when they were slowly standing up again after they had snatched something and when they reeked from the energy used, would restore a sick person to health. It was said that this was because the energy leaking from the strong trunk was captured in the leaves, and that energy would give strength to a weak person. People told a story of a governor’s son who had been weak all his life, unable to walk for a long time, and even felt faint when standing. It was a pity, people said, because the boy was smart, handsome and would have made a good governor someday. The story said that a man had come from the far eastern borders of Jerel, quite near Kai, and had given the boy a remedy which had made him strong as long as he kept taking this potion whenever he turned another year old. Some people said that this man was a sorcerer, and had given the boy a magic potion, but some people claimed that the man had simply known of Duronji leaves in all their power, and that was why people in Jerel still use Duronji leaves if they can find them.

Jemma believed in the power of the Duronji, the same way she believed in the six gods of Amina. She never had questioned it. She wasn’t sure if the story was true, but she had seen the healer try Duronji leaves as a remedy for her mother as she died. The leaves hadn’t kept her from dying, but at least at the end she was clear-minded. At least she had been able to say good-bye.

 

The Duronji plants did make Dann stronger, but his leg didn’t heal and the fever didn’t let up much. He was no longer delirious, but his leg began to seem infected. He could talk to her now, and one day, a week and three days from the stabbing, he seemed grim and didn’t talk much all day. Then, at the end of the day as he ate some meat, he brought on the conversation that Jemma had been avoiding.

“Jemma,” he said.

She looked up. “What? More food?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks.” A pause, “well, not fine.” He looked at her for a minute, and slowly she understood what he was trying to say.

“No,” she said, “no, we aren’t going to talk about this.”

“Yes we are. Jemma, we both know it. What we don’t know is how to treat infection. All we can do is let it take whatever course it may.” She glared and tried to move away. He grabbed her wrist. “Jemma! Listen to me. Last time…you shut me out. You went inside and tried to hear her there, but you couldn’t. You were too upset, and so young. So you just listened to yourself cry, until finally you could stand it. So you shut her out, Jemma, you shut your own mother out when keeping her in was the better thing to do, the only thing you could do to keep a memory of her. And it was months before you finally let me back in.” He was still holding her wrist, and she spoke quietly to keep the sobs from rushing out.

“This hurts,” she whispered.

“I know it hurts. And it will hurt. But if I die, Jemma, you won’t have anyone to shut out but yourself. You can’t do that. You will be the only thing to keep yourself going, the only thing to save you from despair. You…and your mother…together you can face this, if you only let her memory back in, Jemma, if only you confront your past.”

Seven

            Somehow I was in the woods. I don’t know how I got there, all I remember is the talking, the talking that was like a knife into my heart, and then I was lying on my back in the grass and looking up at the stars. I don’t remember the sun ever setting either, just that it was night when I awoke to myself and was able to think about things. My face felt wet, as if I had been crying, but I don’t usually cry. A name was ringing in my head. A name I hadn’t said aloud in nine years, since I was seven years old and left childhood behind. Before that night, I didn’t even remember that name. It was one of the secrets I had locked away and hidden from myself.

            “Pema!”

The name ripped itself from the cage of my mind and tore itself through my throat, sounding alone and forlorn in the night air. Pema: the name I used to call my mother. Other children said Papa and Mama, but early on I combined those names with their other names, their given name. Dann and Pedriga. Papa and Mama. Dapa and Pema.

            With the name came memories of her. They rushed through my mind until they had formed a picture. My mother, as I hadn’t seen her in nine years, was now in my mind. Sitting on the trunk that had held her prisoner until so recently. Her black hair, my black hair, hung limply around her face, round and beautiful as always, resting on her hand. Her hazel eyes were serious as they studied my face, but her wide mouth smiled a soft smile of contentment. She looked happy, happy that I had finally set her free.

            All of it was over whelming. I turned from her, tried to listen to my soul, but she was there too. I nearly panicked, but then I took a breath, and everything within me relaxed and settled into its proper place. My mother, no longer a prisoner in a dark corner on my mind, rested in my soul. If I listened, I could hear her speak to me.

Daughter. I am so glad to finally meet you again, my Jemma, my girl.

 

A few ending words

The man healed him. I went back to the hut that morning and he was there. He taught me how to use the herbs that grew all around the clearing to cure infection, and Dann was better within three days. The man stayed long enough to build a small hut nearby, and then he left. On a journey, he said. I didn’t ask where he was going—we never even knew his name. That is alright. I think that maybe he had his own tasks to fulfill. I may never know what they are, and I don’t need to. There are many things I may never know, and for now that is alright, because I am safe. My father is safe. My small task is done. The larger one—to simply live, and to live in peace, may never be done. So many people die without peace. I try to avoid that fate. I don’t know if it is possible. But safety is a step toward it. So there is hope still. Maybe someday I will find it, find peace within myself. I am trying, I know I must be trying, because I am happy, for now, and without happiness there can be no peace.

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