Paths More Travelled

Entry by: Seaside Scribbler

22nd September 2017
The Well Trodden Path

'Are you nervous, Ani?' Mother's soft voice comes from the doorway. For a moment I decide to pretend to be asleep but after tomorrow this will no longer be my home and I will regret not talking to her, one last time.

In my village, when woman marries, she may no longer call her mother, 'Mother'. Mother is her husband's mother and she is never allowed to visit her own blood family without him accompanying her.

'Yes,' I say. And I am. Tomorrow morning my life will change forever.

In my village, if a new wife doesn't bear children within one year of marriage, she is outcast and her husband may cancel the contract.

Mother comes and sits by me, on my mat. I lay my head in her lap. 'When I married Father, I felt the same,' she says.

And now? I want to ask her. Now how do you feel every single morning, not knowing what mood he will greet you with? Don't you still feel nervous?

In my village, violence against women is part of life. We are property. But in the market, some months ago, we heard a woman speaking. She didn't look like us, but what she said was about us. She told us that we were equal. I'd gone there to trade sugar with Mia. What we heard changed our lives. Like a light in my head, Mia told me later.

Mother rubs her hand against her face, where I know a bruise has almost faded. It's the palest yellow. She burned the food. I'd always felt her pain like my own and felt my own useless anger rise up and strike him back. But after hearing the woman in the market, I almost did it. Only Mother's warning, held in her eyes as she seemed to read my mind and my actions, stopped me. He would strike her again, and we all knew it.

Janu, the man I am going to marry, is gentle now. but they always are, in the beginning, Mia tells me. Her husband to be is called Feon. We are going to be neighbours, in our new lives.

'The night before I married your father, I almost ran away,' Mother says, not meeting my eyes. She takes my hand. 'But then I'd not have you, sweet Ani,' she says. 'It is always worth it. If I had run, I'd never have been able to come back. They would have looked for me. Nowadays they can look even further.'

Is she trying to tell me something?

In my village, love between women is forbidden. It is punishable by death. Mia and I, we are very careful.

'If I had run away, I'd have gone South. I hear there is help there, for women who need it.' Mother touches my cheeks with her loving hands. 'I will be here for you, when you are married. I will still be your mother, even though you musn't name me such.'

We hold each other, hard, each, I know, filled with words we cannot or must not say. I long to tell her and equally I know she longs to tell me her secrets, but it isn't our way. Secrets in a village are dangerous and would damage our ability to survive as a community. This is what the chief tells us.

Mother turns at the door and we hold each others gaze. She gives the slightest of nods, then leaves the room.

I think of Janu's size. His big hands. His booming voice.

In my village, when a woman is married, she must do whatever her husband tells her.

I've never been alone with Janu. But I know what he will want to do when we are. It will be nothing like the soft harmony that I share with Mia.

From a dark corner of my room, I withdraw my pack. There's not much in it; a few tools, some clothes, a little food.

In my village, women behaving strangely, hoarding food, talking too much to other women are there to be spied on. We have had to be very, very careful.

The men are in the village centre hut tonight. Before a marriage ceremony they creep together in the dark and do something, none of us women know what and we are all too afraid to try and look. If we were caught...

In my village, there are stories. Stories of ancestors who broke the rules. Like Luka, who argues with her husband in front of his family. Like Freya, who refused to bear her husband's children. Like her sister, who was unable to have any. They all come to bad ends. In my village, it is easiest to agree.

But things are changing. The woman in the market spoke of women who led. Women who hunted. Women who left their villages and travelled. before she was chased away, we heard.

Behind my village, there's a hill. It's on top of it that I've arranged to meet Mia. We've nevber been beyond it; it's forbidden.

In the darkest hour, I pull on my boots and strap on my pack. I creep from the room, into the common area, into the kitchen. I take a last glance around the lumpen darkness, filled with so many memories. The door sighs shut as I slip out.

And walk straight into someone.

A hand is clamped over my mouth, which is the only reason I don't scream.

'Hushhhhh,' whispers a voice in the blackness and my heart falls to the ground.

Mother. She has guessed.

I nod and she removes her hand. What is she going to do? Take me to the central hut now? Tell Father? Lock me in the room? All along, she's known.

'After talking to you earlier, I could see it in your eyes. I know you like I know myself. You came from me. I cannot let you do this...'

'No!' I begin, but she hasn't finished.

'... alone.'

We stare at each other, the starlight enough for us to see each other's will.

'We talk later. Hush.' She pulls me into the shadows. 'If we are caught...' but she clamps that spoken thought down.

I can't speak. Mother? This? Then I notice the pack, strapped to her back. Hand in hand we slip behind and between huts. When we reach the safety of the edge of the wood I whisper, 'Stop.' I turn to face her. 'I have to tell you something. Mia and I...'

'You love her,' Mother says. 'I can see it. Where are we meeting her?'

In my village, women know each other. Far more than the men think we do.

When we heard the woman in the market talking, Mia and I felt something light up within us. A spark, like the ones that leap form the men's flints. We spoke of it often. Our love kept that spark shining. Now, with Mother next to me, fleeing silent in the darkness, I feel the spark grow into a flame, which burns hot inside me. Suddenly my fear is gone.

We climb the hill, helping each other over rocks; balancing each other.

Eventually, we reach the place I've arranged to meet Mia. She's not there. Mother and I sink down, our breath coming ragged.

'She'll be here,' I say but what are are both thinking is this: She's been caught. And this is the end.

We wait and we wait. We don't speak.

As dawn's slender fingers reach up over the edge of our world the pain in me has solidified into a rock of anger and fear. I want to go and fight them all, grab her back - for she's been caught, I am sure of it.

Then Mother notices something in the dim light, half-sticking up out of the earth. It's a piece of leather. She pulls at it and it breaks free of the stony ground.

We stare at what lies in her hand. It's a necklace I made Mia the first time we discovered our love. I feel the rock of anger dissolve back into pain. My tears fall between Mother and me. She knows, without me telling her. She pulls me close.

'Ani,' she croons, and rocks me back and forth.

'We must go,' she says. 'By now, they are close to discovering us. It's too late to go back.'

'I don't want to go back,' says my anger.

Mother stands and pulls me to my feet. 'For now, we must move. Lock those feelings away. Time for them later. Come, let's go.'

We begin to walk, faster and faster as we realise the danger we're in. The sun is coming up and we are exposed. In my village, women do as they're told. As far as I know, we are the first to run.

I hear the alarm-horn first, with my younger hearing, with ears that haven't been kicked and punched.

'They're coming,' I say, hearing the panic in my own voice.

And my mother, the stone in her voice striking down my panic, says, 'So we walk faster. And we find somewhere to hide until darkness falls. And in the night, we find a path, and we keep walking.'