A woman’s adventure
To aid comprehension of names:
Mei Ming, Scribe Girl
Jiang Village, Mei’s adoptive home
Aghir, Lusar’s messenger and later Beba’s husband
Lusar, Mongol Chief
Jerid, his father, deceased
Dani, his mother
Beba, his sister
Narghilem, the trader who told Lusar about Mei
Ravi, Mei’s Jiang friend for the wedding
Kana, Ravi’s chaperone
Luma, Mei’s and Lusar’s daughter
Geng, Beba’s and Aghir’s son
Jakal, old, senior hunter
Ivak, Lusar’s and Mei’s tent guard
Mehreen, beautiful foreign daughter
The honorific ‘O’ precedes certain aspects of life: family members, especially elders, water, rain, as is the custom in many Asian countries. I extended this style to Nature, her seasons and elements as personified actors in the drama to add colour to the foreign setting and characters’ environment.
B T Rogers
27 Moy Ave.
I – SPECTRAL BEASTS
Weeks before her birth, the baby had sensed her Mother’s poor nutrition and weakness and, as the critical time arrived, she made her first independent decision to survive. The placental pulse and uterine quivering dropped dramatically and she kicked and clawed the walls with her tiny toe and finger nails till she found enough traction to push her head against the opening. The commotion stirred the woman to a final push and the baby timed hers to match it.
Mei Ming’s eyes were open and flashing with energy when she emerged from the tired womb, sucking in her first breath, searching her surroundings for the next challenge. She knew there would be more and she had better begin preparing as soon as possible. She did not yet know how much Nemesis enjoyed allowing human confidence to reach its peak before delivering her shattering blow.
The Mother bit through the cord, sealed it with an ember and fell back with a feeble prayer to escape life’s grip and find the release of eternal rest. Mei smiled in appreciation, already understanding the desperate struggle on her behalf. She made no sound as she pulled herself towards the exposed nipple. It was limp and dry but she could smell milk and with a pink thumb pushed the withered nub till a glistening drop appeared. A corner of the Mother’s mouth flickered upwards. Perhaps she would delay her prayers.
Mei’s birthplace was a grimy hollow in one of China’s hills in the far forgotten north. In a dark corner squatted the Father, scowling, jerking a twig from side to side of his pinched toothless mouth. He grunted upright, moved to the Mother and baby and nudged them both with a rag-wrapped foot to see if there was life.
Mei turned her round face to the man and gazed in question.
“Damn!” he spat. “A girl! And brainless by the look.”
Grumpy dawn O-Sun clambered reluctantly over the horizon’s grey crags, depressed at the prospect of having to move over that ungrateful land. He snooped half-heartedly into the barren cave where the skeletal woman was slumped on a bed of worn animal skins. Mei moved from the shrivelled breast and wiggled her fingers at her new yellow friend in the sky who, delighted by the cheerful greeting, waved a warm ray onto the baby’s tiny shoulders. For the first time in many years, old O-Sun had a purpose. He glowed brighter, sparkling through the morning gloom.
Mei was the first child of two beaten down people fighting the cruel elements of their remote settlement. Only two dozen families remained from an original hundred pioneer refugees a decade before. Half died on the journey, more fell behind too weak even to crawl, and finally the few survivors collapsed into those dark holes on the hillside and never moved on. Several died from broken bones and slashed flesh sustained in wrestling boulders up the slope to create a defence barrier for the pathetic territorial cave that each claimed, or from the exhaustion of hacking into the harsh ground in search of water.
There were heated arguments, often in full view of disinterested witnesses, and sometimes at night in deserted ravines. Driven by rabid hunger and anger, many fights resulted in death. No one grieved or asked questions but they scattered more razor flints or embedded sharpened stakes at their entrance.
Violent man was but another of the perils of Nature’s arsenal but most perished from starvation, thirst, or despair.
In the early days, marauding Mongols galloped into their camp clubbing anyone who tried to cling to a meagre possession but the raiders stopped coming when they found the desperate creatures had developed crude but effective resistance. After that, only lost Hunters, drawn by wisps of cooking smoke, came rushing through the hills, the sight of human life raising shouts of hungry relief.
Immediately, from those hostile hovels clinging to the grim rock slopes, bony men appeared, rising like spinal cobras from cracks in the ground. Even the most fearless bandits quickly whipped their mounts into urgent retreat for they had heard of the place where spectral beasts threw blade-sharp stones at man and horse and fed on their flesh.
So the families existed, huddling to the lee of their inhospitable ridge, preying with unerring accuracy on all breathing creatures, large and small, that made the mistake of coming within reach. Everything captured was carefully split open for any seeds in the gut which could be planted and nurtured with precious drops of blood and saliva.
In the cold pre-dawn, they crawled over rocks licking moisture with only one goal: to gain enough energy to leave, but the jagged trails to where O-Rain worked and played were dotted with screaming skulls of denied escapes. The rest of the bones had been torn free and dragged away by ravenous wild animals fighting for the marrow, victors often collapsing over the miserable scraps, dead from the effort. Losers then battled over the new food. The cycle of starvation: fight, win, lose, die.
Nowhere on earth was life less worth living.
Mei’s Father wanted a Son, someone who could help dig in the daily search for water, who could learn the art of felling a faltering bird with a honed stone. He could not see how a Daughter would be of any use in his endless battle for survival. He waved her out of his sight with tired impatience, rasping pleas to the sky for O-Rain or death in the same breath.
Time pursued his relentless duties with never a thought of reducing the sentence imposed on the cave prisoners. Mei grew, found her feet, and ranged farther afield on her food hunts while her Father burned valuable energy copulating with weakening fury, berating the Mother every month at their obvious failure. They invariably turned from each other, drained, bones clenched into balls of misery, wondering whether it was life or spirit that was seeping so painfully into the ground. Mei would wriggle between them and place a silky hand on each of their spines until she felt their tension ease.
When the Parents woke, surprised they were alive, Mei pushed a rag of beetles towards them. They fell on it, the Father seizing most. There were no thanks but Mei smiled at the dirt, enjoying the noisy crunching and swallows.
When the wife did eventually conceive again, she bore a lad who survived but half a year and the man’s angry frustration increased.
Mei now divided her life between swift forays, to the rocks where edible life huddled from O-Wind and O-Sun, and sitting outside the cave until she heard the exhausted rattle of her sleeping Parents.
She took her position between them where they always lay apart to avoid the jab of their protruding bones. Mei simply rested her hands on their necks, sending her smile through her fingertips, watching their eyelids stop twitching and feeling the faint stagger of their pulse steady its flow.
By the time she was eleven, Mei had seen the bone fragments of two Brothers tossed on the slope to attract prey, the hollow black guilt of her Mother’s eyes burned her gentle Daughter and the surly misery of her Father battered her spirit. She was not strong enough to throw flints to bring down birds and even her skill in trapping tiny rodents and insects did not soften her Father’s resentful glare. Fighting for survival allowed no wasted energy on smiles or praise.
When men and their Sons assembled for a food search, Mei rose, hoping she would be needed and her Father would make some sign for her to accompany them. In the presence of others, he uttered his kindest words. “Tend Mother,” and walked stiffly away trying to conceal his shame of not having sired a male.
Speech and standing were unnecessary efforts for the Mother who sat stonily by the ashes, frugally keeping the embers alive with twigs and rodent dung. Her only communication with the girl was a barely audible imperative hiss as she twitched her chin at something crawling. Mei’s hand darted to trap it and drop it into the food crock. Though she slipped her Mother extra lichens and beetles, the poor woman weakened with every passing season, her eyes filling with apologetic resignation as she unconsciously picked at her own skin with long split filthy nails and pushed the pieces between her lips.
At the beginning of her thirteenth year her Mother died and the skinny girl left the shelter of the ridge to avoid the traditional sharing of a deceased’s flesh and fluids. She did not look back nor take one of the known paths to the south and the purple horizon but headed west travelling with Cloud clumps that raced across the sky ceiling. Only her guardian O-Sun saw her leave and slapped a young warm Breeze to serve as companion for the small walker.