|<- Back to main page|
by Jordan Dilley
We have a story to tell you they say after first meal. The older girls shepherd us toward the big oak that stands in the middle of the square. The oak tree is ancient, from before, and it shows in the thick limbs that reach toward the sky, or lay on the earth, too tired to rise, growing along the leaf covered ground instead. On days when the sun is bright, the limbs appear black, the gnarls and notches sharper. We run across the square and avert our eyes on those days. Today, before we sit, we place a hand on the tree and close our eyes for a moment, a gesture of reverence we’ve observed in our parents, though we do not know the meaning of it.
They pace before us, their sinuous legs adding mystery to the rough fabric of their skirts. Our skirts have no mystery, not yet. “Do you know the story of Mivina?” they ask just as their sisters and mothers and aunts have asked before.
We fidget, seated among the roots that rise and tumble back into the ground, waiting for the story. Suddenly aware of our skinny bodies in our drab homespun like we’ve never been before, we pick scabs on our arms, fold and unfold our legs, and twist the ends of our hair. We sigh, holding ourselves back as long as possible from the swell that will break upon us soon.
The older girls stop pacing, and synchronized, clasp their hands at their heart.
Long ago, before fire consumed our land, before the great pillars of stone and glass arose from the ground, when the air was clean and good, Mivina lived with her family in a village by the sea. She was a good child, a child to be proud of the villagers told her mother and father. And like many mothers and fathers, they watched Mivina grow from a child to a young woman, shielding her as best they could from the world beyond.
But one day, when Mivina was supposed to be in the field gathering hemp for the fisherman’s nets, she wandered to the pools near the cliffside. The water in the pools rippled azure in the hot afternoon sun and Mivina stood at the pool’s edge, fixing the sun’s reflection in her mind before she removed her simple dress. But just as she was about to brush the pool’s surface with her foot, an old woman approached.
“I wouldn’t do that,” she said, pointing to Mivina’s foot.
Mivina, who had been taught to obey her elders, removed her foot from the water’s edge. “Why?” she asked the old woman who she recognized as the village’s midwife.
“Surely you’ve heard the legends? The ones that tell what happens to women who enter these sacred pools? These pools that kept our ancestors alive during the killing heat?”
Mivina had not heard any such legends, though stories of their ancestors abounded. She dutifully listened to the old woman recount several tales of women who had swam in these pools, all of whom suffered misfortune shortly after. One’s lover had died at sea, another succumbed to a mysterious sickness. When the old woman was done, she made Mivina promise not to enter the pools. Mivina did promise as she helped the old woman up and wiped the sweat from her brow with her own sleeve.
But Mivina did not return to the fields to collect the hemp for the fisherman’s nets as she should have.
The older girls unclasp their hands. “That’s all until our next meeting,” they say, as we rise.
Each of us returns to her home, back to the unvarying rhythm of chores, and for the lucky, lessons in reading and writing and counting. We meet the next day after second meal, before our fathers come home lugging their nets, disappointment hiding in the creases of their weather-beaten faces. Our mothers say to be home in time to prepare the fish our fathers bring home, to peel away the gray scales, remove the tricky little bones, and drop the fleshy chunks into boiling water. But for now, we fly over our thresholds to the square, not minding the shop boys who eye us suspiciously and the old women who haggle over the price of beans and despise our youth.
We all ask the same question: what happened to Mivina? Did she drown? Some of us scoff at such a simple answer. What is the point in telling such a story if the ending is so predictable? Even the ones who can’t read, who may never read, know a story must have some purpose. Why does Mivina stay at the pools if she is an obedient child? We want to know all these things. Want to flesh out the mystery of disobedience, old women, and sacred pools as we stand in the square barefoot, or in a pair of slipshod shoes, hoping our fathers take a little longer getting out of their boats today, just a little more time to understand.
We glance shyly at each other, wondering if the other possesses the answer, wondering why we ourselves are left out, cut off. What qualities do we lack to be made to feel so naïve? Perhaps if our hair curled around our faces, or if our calves curved toward our knees just a little bit more—would that bridge the gap we now feel stretching between us? Each girl returns to her house, her mind reviewing these new questions. We barely taste the fish soup we prepare that night, and when our parents ask about the story in the square today, our answers are slight. We shrug and stir our soup, around and around, until we almost imagine the bowl holds an azure pool.
After weeks of waiting we are summoned back to the oak tree. We search for signs in each other of the little girls we were weeks ago before dangerous pools and the possibility of disobedience filled our minds. On the surface, everything is the same.
The older girls, still enigmatic in the sway of their hips and in the slight protuberance under their bodices, continue the story.
When the old woman finally hobbled up the cliffside, Mivina stepped into the pool. She walked until the water reached her knees, waiting for calamity to overtake her as the old woman had promised it would. When nothing happened, Mivina spread her arms and swam until her feet no longer touched the bottom. Stupid to be frightened by an old woman and her superstitions, Mivina thought as she dipped her head beneath the surface. Her hair lay on the surface of the water, fanned around her face as she floated, the sun warming her belly and chest. She ducked under the surface again, kicking her feet, imagining herself a fish as she wiggled her hips back and forth, wishing she could swim as gracefully.
When the sun dipped past the middle of the sky, Mivina reluctantly swam toward the edge of the pool. Beads of water fell from her and formed a puddle next to her dress which she put on quickly. If she went to the fields straight away, she might still be able to collect enough hemp to ward off suspicion.
Later that night as she lay in bed, the smell of hemp still clinging to her fingers and arms, Mivina remembered the woman and her warning. Many of the old people in their village had superstitious beliefs no one else entertained. The carpenter was notorious, believing every time he chopped down a tree, its spirit remained in the wood, wearing away the legs of the tables he made and causing his prized shelves to go crooked during the wet winters. Mivina’s parents had made sure to squash these notions in their family. As moonlight fell across the pallet Mivina slept on in the kitchen, she decided to tell her mother about the old woman. They would laugh at her warnings as they washed the family’s clothes in the big wooden barrel behind their house.
A sharp pain erupted in Mivina’s side and she rolled over on her mat and groaned. Pain radiated toward her back and into her hips and Mivina panted as the pain came and went, finally drifting off to sleep an hour before sunrise. Her dreams were whirl of warnings and half-formed punishments, ending with Mivina turning into a fish only to be hooked and dragged on board, blood seeping out her gills.
Little did Mivina know, her dreams were not far from the truth.
This time, we don’t meet in the square after second meal to discuss the story. We are too wrapped up in the same thoughts, though we don’t know it. We scrub the wooden floors of our house, the warm water soaking through the hems of our dresses, wondering if Mivina’s pain was the punishment the old woman promised. As we slice fish into thin strips to dry in the shed filled with smoke behind our house, we question Mivina’s choice not to listen to the old woman. We vacillate between praise for Mivina’s independence and condemnation for her disobedience. In the meantime, we are cautious, obeying our parents so perfectly, they suspect guilt lurking in the corners of our lives.
We find we notice things we never did before. Like how our neighbor, the lady with the mounds of dark hair, flinches every time her husband calls her name. Or how a few of the children that live in the village look nothing like their brothers and sisters, skin so pale, eyelashes almost invisible. There’s a bucket with a lid one of our sisters keeps under a shelf near the back door. For the first time we ask her why she is so protective of this bucket of metallic-smelling rubbish. She doesn’t answer us but gives us a look that reminds us of the baker when he throws out old bread to the children that come begging. You’ll have your own bucket one day, she tells us, touching our cheek with her young hands that are nevertheless rough and dry.
We turn her words over and over in our mind, until we are summoned to the oak a final time. The wind whips around our ankles; our dresses have grown shorter since the first telling. We wear the same thick socks our fathers wear on the boats during the winter. It is too cold for an outside gathering and we rub our arms and pull our knitted shawls closer, daydreaming about our little houses where the fire that has been going since dawn still crackles. We will ask our mothers for an extra piece of bread at second meal, and they will likely give us one. We have noticed our helpings of fish soup are larger than they used to be. When our brothers and sisters aren’t looking, mother gives us a bit of cheese or an extra spoonful of mush.
We stand closer together, backs to the wind, imagining more warmth than our little bodies can give each other. When the older girls arrive, we grudgingly sit down on the hard ground, on the desiccated leaves, and blow into our hands. The older girls tremble in the bitter wind. One has a red spot on her chin she scratches, another’s left eyelid hangs lower than the right. We look at their legs, thick socks falling toward their ankles. Now their legs are straight stalks, only slightly thicker than ours.
The morning after, Mivina awoke to another hot day. The thin fabric of her nightdress clung to her damp skin and she decided she would swim in the pools again. She had gathered enough hemp yesterday; she could do it again today.
Mivina swam in the pools again. She stayed longer this time, until her hands and feet began to wrinkle. She swam until she was tired, until her arms and legs ached. She floated on her back, eyes closed against the sun, muscles relaxing in the cool water. When she could put it off no longer, Mivina swam to her pile of clothes and lifted herself over the edge of the pool. She sat drying in the hot sun. Just before she grabbed her dress, before she trudged toward the fields, Mivina felt a wetness between her legs. She looked down at a red puddle slowly spreading out from her thighs. She scrambled to the pool and hurled handfuls of water onto the puddle. The red faded into pink. Mivina threw on her dress and ran from the pink puddle.
But while Mivina was gathering hemp, the blood returned. It dripped down her legs and stained her dress. Panic gripped Mivina as she ran from the fields toward a cluster of trees near the road. She sat down on one of the stumps and cried into her hands, shoulders shaking. Down the lane came the old woman. She examined Mivina’s dress and the dried blood around her ankles.
“Didn’t I tell you? the old woman asked. “No one goes into the pools and comes out the same.”
Mivina told the old woman about the pain from the night before. “Is there anything I can do?” she pleaded.
The old woman shook her head. “Do you see the crescent moon in the sky?” By now it was getting on toward evening and a faint sliver of white shown near the horizon. “When the moon completes its cycle, you will experience the pain and the bleeding again.”
“Again?” Mivina whispered.
The old woman nodded. “For the next thirty years of your life.”
Mivina watched the old woman hobble away before starting the long walk home.
We hurry away from the town square, from the oak tree that will always remind us of punishment and blood. We take a large chunk of cheese when our mothers aren’t looking and eat it near the back door; we deserve it. Finally, we lift the lid on our sister’s bucket. A clump of rags lay atop cloudy red water, and the metallic tang of blood fills our nostrils. We think we feel a dull ache spreading across our belly. A phantom, we tell ourselves as the oak’s branches writhe in the cold wind outside. We hug our shawls tightly, stand by the fire, and wait.