Not terribly far from where Filia had crouched in the underbrush, a tent sat sweltering in the afternoon sun. The inside of the tent was cooler than the outside air, and more humid. Three people – a woman, a baby, and a girl – labored inside. Their bare, brown bodies were lightly dusted with the tan, desert dust as each concentrated on their own particular business.
“Amada, come get him,” Mama said, aiming her chin at the baby, who was trying to crawl up into the grinding bowl. “He keeps getting in the way, and I need to finish the bread for lunch. The sound of that trumpet says that the men have returned early.”
“Yes, Mama,” Amada replied. She dropped the pestle into the mortar and set both on the rug beside her. She got up and scooped the baby into her arms.
“What are you doing, baby?” Amada asked the infant, who stared up into her face wide-eyed for a long moment before starting to squirm, wanting back down.
“Keep him over there for a bit,” Mama said, and Amada nodded. “I need to finish this grind and then I can feed him.”
Amada set the infant on the rug beyond the mortar and then resumed grinding. As the baby tried to crawl back toward his mother Amada would turn him to face the other way, then resume crushing the salt crystals into powder. Mama finished grinding the grain, poured the flour into a jar and then picked up the infant. She offered the little boy a nipple and then started setting up the mixing table. Amada finished her batch of salt, emptied the powder into another, smaller jar and then started grinding another batch.
“Amada, have you seen the sweet spice?” Mama asked as she searched through a pile of luggage.
“No, Mama,” Amada replied.
“I thought it was here,” she said, stooping down to rummage through the leather sacks while balancing her nursing child on her hip, “but I do not see it.”
“That’s where we always keep it, isn’t it?” Amada asked, pausing from her work. The sweet spice was essential to the making of the travel bread. Without it the bread was tasteless and would soon mold.
“Oh, here it is,” Mama said, pulling out a small sack. “No,” she amended, “it’s empty.” She frowned. “That’s no good.”
“How are we going to make the bread?” Amada asked, distress creeping into her voice.
“Aunt Joi will have some,” Mama said confidently. She fetched another sack from the luggage. “Here. Take this over to your Aunt Joi’s and trade her this for some sweet spice. Hurry so I can cook them after I finish the meat.”
Amada nodded and got up. She stowed the mortar and took the sack from Mama. She stepped toward the entry to the tent, then turned aside and grabbed a headdress off a peg driven into a tent pole.
“I don’t want to forget my bas!” Amada chirped.
“Not now, Amada, you’re only going to Aunt Joi’s,” Mama protested.
“No, I must wear it,” Amada replied, trying to put the awkward headdress on. “I am not a little girl anymore who can go out naked in the sun. What would Father think?”
“No one will see you,” countered Mama. “All the men are fighting today and all the boys are hunting. Hurry before anyone can see you.”
“No,” Amada said, placing the headdress on her head and starting to tie it on. “I am a young woman now, not a skinny naked girl. Look — see? look at all that hair I have grown!” She tugged on the wisps of curly hair that graced her pubis. “I cannot go out with my face uncovered.”
Mama sighed impatiently, then helped thread the ties of the headdress through the loops braided into the hair of Amada’s head. The girl did not protest when Mama cinched them tight, somehow managing to pull on every single hair on her head. A cascade of ropes fell down about her body, and a veil fell down over her face, darkening the whole world.
“I can’t see,” Amada complained. In response Mama adjusted the veil so that the eye-slit lined up with the girl’s eyes.
“You can see just fine,” Mama retorted. “Now go.” Mama gave Amada a gentle swat on her bare backside and turned back to her work.
Amada pushed through the tent door and looked around. Their tent was in the middle of the camp, and all she could see was other tents. There was no one else in sight. She straightened and started walking. It only took her a few strides to reach the main street through the camp. It was not as deserted as her mother had tried to impress on her. Small children ran and screamed, women of every age walked here and there, jars and sacks balanced on their wide-brimmed bais, and a few elders also strode the streets, their leathers slapping against their own leathery skin. Amada fretted a moment. She was really no bigger than most of the children still running in the streets, their faces as uncovered as the rest of their bodies. Would the women laugh at her for wearing the bas? She noted a group of women walking toward her. They all had sacks balanced on top their bais, and were chatting as they walked. They were headed in the direction of Aunt Joi’s, so Amada fell in with them. They allowed her to join them without comment. She admired the bangles they had added to the ropes suspended from their bais and from the fringes of their veils, and noted that the bas could be fashionable as well as utilitarian. The group threaded their way into the mass of tents on the other side of the street, and she followed, leaving the open space behind. After a moment they were joined by another woman who fell in behind Amada. The new woman crowded in, and Amada glanced back at her. She was startled to see that this stranger was different from the other women. The skin that shown generously between the ropes of her bas was much lighter than Amada’s, as was the fuzz of hair between her legs. Her bas was tipped on her head. She tried to steady the bas with her hand, and Amada could see that her eyes were wide behind her veil. Those eyes were a color Amada had never seen before. Amada had never seen a woman like her. Their eyes met for just a moment, and then the strange woman turned away and hurried between two tents. Amada was startled to see a nasty wound, barely healing, across one hip. She also noticed that the woman’s buttocks were even whiter than the rest of her skin, and realized with a shock that the stranger had actually smeared some dark substance on her body to darken her skin, and had somehow missed her backside. Amada stopped dead, staring down the short alleyway the stranger had vanished down. Should she follow the strange woman, and tell her she missed a spot? Should she tell one of the other women? Not far away Amada recognized the sound of Aunt Joi’s voice, and remembered her errand. Torn between two problems, Amada finally decided to press on.
Amada found Aunt Joi outside her tent. Hamad, her son, was with her.
“… were returning, so we all ran in from the bush,” he was explaining to his mother. Hamad was a few years older than her, and he wore a leather belt on which he carried his knife and water bag. Amada wondered why the men got to wear belts. A belt would not interfere with the bas. Perhaps she would mention it to Mama. As she approached Hamad saw her and smiled.
“Amada!” he called. “The hunters have returned!” He let off a high-pitched imitation of a man’s war cry, and his mother slapped him good-naturedly on the shoulder.
“Amada,” she asked, “What do you need?”
“Mother sent me to get some sweet spice for our bread.”
“Oh, I don’t have any either,” she said. “I used the last of mine for my bread. Here,” she handed another small sack to Amada. “Go with Hamad to the spice lady and get some more for us all.”
“Yes, Aunt Joi,” Amada said, taking the sack.
“Come on!” Hamas said, bounding away toward the street. Amada hesitated, and turned back to her aunt.
“Just a moment ago I saw a very strange woman,” Amada said.
“What do you mean, strange?” Aunt Joi asked.
“Her skin was pale, so pale she had to darken it, and she acted like she did not know how to wear a bas.”
Aunt Joi nodded. “Was she one of Doomas Bahtah’s wives?” she asked.
“The new tribe that joined us two days ago here. He comes from the Broken Hills. He has some slave wives, women that he captured in battle. Was she one of those?”
Amada frowned. “She might have been. Now that I think about it, she was hurt.”
Her aunt frowned. “I may go check on that. These hill people don’t always take care of their woman as they ought, even if they are slaves. Now hurry on, and get that spice so your mother can make her bread.”
Amada hurried after Hamad. As she ran the ropes that were supposed to surround and conceal her body instead bounced off and caught between her legs. She caught up with him at the road and together they hurried up to the head of the camp. There they ran into a crowd of people who were milling about the Chief’s tent. Amada saw her father and ran up to him.
He looked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment before breaking out into a smile. He caught her in his arms, but quickly released her.
“Daughter of mine, I did not know you in your new bas!” he said, a bright smile showing through his beard. He was covered in dust from the road, and the leather straps that hung about his body were hot from the sun. Amada felt moisture on her skin. She looked down and saw a smear of blood on her belly. She looked at her father’s face in shock.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, looking down at his waist, the source of the blood. There, suspended beside his own dangling manhood, was a set of severed genitals. It was they that had been the source of the blood. Amada felt, in rapid succession, relief that the wound was not her father’s, revulsion that she had just touched some man’s dead penis, pride that her father had been victorious in battle, and fascination with the bloody tokens. These feelings all replayed themselves again when Hamad touched them, and her father stood still while the youth handled them. As she stood and watched, fascinated and repulsed, she compared her cousin’s own small organs – brown, round and vital – to the adult set pinioned on her father’s belt – pale grey, limp, and flattened – and had a terrible vision of another boy, one day far too soon, admiring Hamad’s cluster as a gathered token of victory. She shook that image from her head.
Her father took her by the shoulders and spun her about, breaking her reverie. “We have taken a prisoner. Look!” He took her by the hips and lifted her up so she could see over the crowd. In the center there was a clearing, and she could see the chief seated, and standing beside him was a bald man with no armor and an odd-looking wrap around his waist. Most amazing, laid in front of them was the naked body of a man whose entire body was blue. At first she thought he was dead, but then he moved a bit. She could hear the chief asking him something, and then her father lowered her back down.
“Did you see him?” her father asked.
“I saw a blue man!” she said.
“A blue man?” Hamad asked, and her father repeated the maneuver with Hamad. Amada waited, wiping at the blood drying on her skin. Suddenly it occurred to her that Mama was waiting for her spice.
“Father, Mama sent me to get sweet spice, and I have to get it back to her to make the bread.”
“Go, then. I will tell you all about it when we eat.”
“Amada,” Hamad said as he dropped back down, “buy some for us too.” He tossed the bag to her, and she nodded, and headed off.
Amada circled around the crowd until she was back in the mass of tents, then headed for the tent of the spice lady. As she walked she thought about that blue man and wondered what they would do to him before they killed him. It occurred to her that the tokens her father had carried had been very pale, but still normally colored, not blue. She thought about that woman with her pale backside, and wondered if there was a connection. She wandered in thought for a moment, realized she was lost in a maze of twisty little passages where all the tents looked alike, and then headed back to the street to get her bearings. She found them, and after a few moments of walking she found the spice lady’s tent. The spice lady was actually named Famina, and Amada could see her inside as she approached. Famina waved her in, and Amada entered, bowing. Famina was obviously holding shop, for she was wearing a bas, although she had the cords all drawn up and stowed on top.
“Young Amada,” Famina said, “I almost didn’t recognize you in your new bas. How do you like it?”
“I like it,” Amada said proudly. “Mama and Aunt Joi sent me to get some sweet spice.”
Famina frowned. “I do not have sweet spice anymore. The new tribes need it, and the chief has taken all of mine to trade with them.”
“Mama needs it to make the bread with,” Amada protested.
“At least you still have grain for bread,” Famina said. “The chief has taken some of my grain also.” She considered a moment. “Perhaps I can sell you something else,” she said. “Anise? Sweetleaf?”
“I …” Amada thought. “I don’t think so. Mama said sweet spice.” She thought for a moment. “Would anyone else have some?”
“The spice woman from Doomas Bahtah’s tribe has all of mine,” Famina grumbled. “Why not go ask her?”
Amada quailed at the thought of going to strangers, but the spice was needed. “Where is she?”
“Just on the other side of the animal pen. Look for a red tent.”
Amada nodded and left the tent. She hurried, the ropes from her bas again dancing across her body and entangling themselves in her legs. She gathered them up in one hand to allow herself more freedom to run. The crowd was still gathered, but some people were already walking away. She saw her father and Hamad among them. She ran to catch up.
“Father!” she called. He turned and waited. “The spice lady has no sweet spice to sell us. She said it all went to the new tribe.”
He frowned. “They are taking all the water too. They need to know to share, or there will not be enough.”
“What will we do when the next tribe joins us?” Hamad asked.
Father pondered. “The chief will likely move us soon to a larger space with more water.” He nodded. “Perhaps the blue man will tell him where there is more water here.”
“Were there more blue people?” asked Amada.
“The people we ambushed were very pale, but not blue. We think there may have been another with him, a woman. We did not see her, though.”
“A blue woman,” said Hamad, his eyes wide.
“Perhaps,” Father said. He looked down at the two youth. “Hamad, take Amada to the new tribe. It is past the animal pen.”
“The spice lady said to look for a red tent.”
“Good idea. Hurry! I will tell Mama.”
The two children ran off, the unencumbered Hamad outpacing Amada in her tangling garb. He stopped and waited for her several times before they reached the animal paddock. It was a large oval roped off that held the pack animals. There were goats, and a few horses, but most of the animals were the pack lizards, the six-legged staple of the southern desert. These stood motionless in place, their tongues slowly forking in and out. Slower than the horses, but sturdier and with better endurance, they carried the tribe everywhere. Looking across the paddock, Amada caught a glimpse of red.
“There,” she said, pointing, and the two headed off around the animal pen. As the children walked past the animal pen they passed a number of people from the new tribe. Amada openly stared at the strangers. Their skin was the same brown as hers, but their dress was very, very different. Their men wore no leather, but instead sported armor made from tubes strung on cords. Rather than hanging free as Father’s did, their male parts were looped with cord and tied to their belts, almost like their cluster was already a token of war. Amada was shocked to see the men displayed so. The women were also dressed very oddly. Their faces were completely uncovered, as were their entire torsos. Whereas her own naked body was veiled by the long ropes hanging from the wide brim of the bas on her head, these women only wore strips of woven grass attached to a thin cord that circled the waist and passed between the labia. It looked very uncomfortable. Their children were completely naked, except for the older girls who wore a string between their legs like the women, and the older boys who were tied up like the men. Amada shook her head, amazed at their brazen immodesty. All members of that tribe painted their faces with some sort of green and pink paint. Their language was familiar enough for Amada to understand, but it was spoken with a thick accent. It occurred to Amada that the pale woman had been properly dressed in a bas, not naked like these people. The two children hurried past them all, heading for the red tent. They reached it unchallenged, and stopped at the door. Inside sat a woman, dressed like the others of her tribe except she had no face paint. She looked as old as Aunt Joi. She looked up at them.
“What do you want?” she asked brusquely.
“Sweet spice,” Amada answered immediately. She had no intention of being intimidated by this stranger.
“What is that?” the woman asked. “I have never heard of it.”
“We use it to make out bread,” Amada replied, then paused. She had no idea how to explain to this stranger what the spice actually was. “The spice lady said you got some from us when you arrived.”
The strange woman frowned, staring at them. Amada thought the woman was about to yell at them for bothering her, and she was at a loss as to what to do if that happened. The woman did not yell at her, however, but stood and pulled a satchel down from a wall and opened it.
“Do you see it in here?” she asked. Amada approached carefully and looked in the satchel. She saw a number of smaller sacks. One had familiar markings. Amada lifted it and sniffed it.
“This is it, I think,” Amada said. The half-naked stranger took the bag and opened it and showed Amada the spice. “Yes, that’s it.”
“What will you give me for it?” she asked. Amada handed her the sacks she had accumulated. The strange woman examined the sacks, examined the two children, then shrugged.
“All right,” she said, and handed the spice to Amada. “This is all I have. I traded you for it, and now you trade me back for it.”
“You didn’t trade me for it,” Amada replied, bemused. “I never saw you before.”
“I mean I traded your tribe for it,” she amended. “I had never seen that spice before. It was in the satchel I got when we met you. I had hoped for some left-handed spice, but you don’t seem to have that, and now we’re out.”
“Left-handed spice?” Hamad asked. “What is that?”
“We use it on cuts, to make them stop hurting,” she said. “It would have been useful to have some, since we’re all going to war. I think we will be seeing many cuts in the days to come.”
Amada flashed-back to the vision she had earlier of Hamad’s perfect parts as a war token. “How big of a cut does it work on?”
The stranger looked in her eyes for a moment. “Probably not as big a cut as you are thinking of,” she said. “If I had known we were going to war I would have found more left-handed spice, and also found some red-eye berries and some fairy-hair plant. We left so suddenly I had no time to do that.”
“Yes,” Hamad said, “we left suddenly too. My father was out hunting and we did not even wait for him to return. He had to catch up to us. It took him two days.”
“Were you worried?”
Hamad bit his lip and frowned, then shook his head. “No, my father is a great hunter. He could easily see where we had gone. Finding us was easy for him.” The stranger nodded knowingly. Amada felt that she was perhaps not so strange after all. “What did they tell you when they told you you were leaving?” asked Amada.
The stranger frowned. “It was so sudden. This man came to the camp. He was strange, because he wore strange clothes, and spoke in a strange accent. He spoke with the chief, and then the chief said we had to go. That was it.”
“What was strange about his clothes?”
She pondered. “It looked at first like they were made with blue leather, but when I got close enough to see it I could see it was not leather at all. I do not know what it was … but it was not leather. And he had trousers — very, very, small, short trousers.” She thought some more. “And he had metal to connect it. Brass. That was unusual also.” She shrugged. “Whatever he was wearing, the chief listened to him like he was the messenger of the gods, and we packed up and left. So here we are.”
The three stood silently for a moment, then Amada spoke.
“Well, I need to get this back to Mama so she can finish the bread.”
“Yes, go now,” the stranger said, not unkindly. “We all must finish preparing for the journey across the desert.”
Amada and Hamad worked their way back around the animal pen. As they walked they studied the strangers, noting their strange dress and speech. Once back at the street they hurried along to their respective homes. As they stranger had said, there was much work yet to be done. Father and Mama were both busy, in and out of the tent, and Amada was busy also. Once back in the tent she doffed the bas and hung it back up with care, not wanting to dirty it while cooking or packing, both of which were activities best performed naked. Mama already had the oven hot and the dough rising. Amada watched the baby and kneeded in the spice while Mama and Father fussed over the saddle baggage. There was talk of another tribe coming, and Father was agitated about that for some reason. Amada listened in quietly as she worked, and finally realized that Father was upset because the two tribes had recently been at war. It seemed someone Father knew had died in that war. He kept mentioning a name, but Amada did not recognize it. After a while Father left and Mama continued to work by herself. After a short while Amada spoke.
“Mama, who was this person that Father said died in the war with this new tribe?”
Mama frowned. “It was his brother.”
Amada was shocked. “Brother?” She was silent, stunned by the revelation. “I didn’t know Father had a brother.”
“He was killed a few years ago. Your father still mourns him, but he does not talk about him. You met him many times, but you were young and probably don’t remember him.”
Mama turned away, and Amada realized that she was upset by all this talk of war and dying. Amada felt a chill inside. She could again feel the cold of the blood from the dead man’s flesh. The vision from earlier returned, but this time it was not Hamad’s perfect parts on the stranger’s belt, but Father’s. Her stomach clenched in fear. She had no where to turn, though, for Mama was still hiding her face, and so Amada put her face back to her work. It was now time to bake the bread, and she set to patting the dough into patties. Once this was done she took them and her baby brother outside and began and cooking the patties in the small stone oven set up between the tents. When she had four flat loaves baked and cooled she bundled them into a package with some twine and hung them up on a line that hung between their tent and the next.
The baking was a time consuming process that could neither be rushed nor ignored. That was alright, though, because Amada had the baby to entertain her, and friends would stop by, and Amada could always just sit and watch the traffic in the nearby alleyway. She even thought she might have seen that strange woman with the pale skin and strange eyes go by. After a while Hamad stopped by and exchanged some meat for some bread. Mama took the meat and cooked it with some roots and herbs. By the time it was done the sun was setting. Amada was finished with the last loaves and Father had returned with the news that the new tribe had arrived, and that they were all off in the morning to cross the desert. They all sat down to eat dinner together in the tent. Before they did Father took off his belt and hung it on a peg. There was little conversation as they ate, and Amada found her eyes drifting back and forth between the limp, gray token pinned to her father’s belt and his own live member. Before long she was so nervous she could not eat. Mama also ate little, and got up to pack. Amada went outside and started to pack up the bread into a basket for they journey. She paused to count the loaves.
“Mama, did you already start packing the bread?” She asked when Mama emerged from the tent behind her.
Amada frowned and pointed. “I’m missing a bundle.”
“We gave one to Hamad, remember?”
“Yes, but I am still missing another. See? Hamad took that one,” she pointed at a gap in the line of bundles hanging on the line. “But there was one there too,” she pointed at the very end of the line, where there was a space between the last bundle and the tent wall. Mama and she studied the line for a long moment.
“Well, either you counted wrong or someone who needed it took it. Let’s pack the rest.”
Amada and Mama packed the remaining cakes into a basket, then took down the line and stowed it. The basket with the bread got added to the luggage, and then Mama pulled out the water bottles. She rinsed them out and carefully began dividing the remaining sweet spice into portions to be added to the bottles to sweeten the water. Once this was done she handed them all to Amada.
“Take these down to the well and fill them.”
Amada nodded. She looked up at her bas, but Mama shook her head.
“It’s getting dark. No one will see you anyway. Just go.”
Amada hesitated, then nodded. She walked out into the growing dusk with the empty water bottles as her only garb. She felt naked, which was odd since she had really just started wearing the bas a day or so ago, and had walked around with nothing on for most of her life. Still, she hurried and hoped Hamad was not at the well.
The well was located next to the chief’s tent, or rather the chief’s tent had been pitched right next to the well. The well was a large, low structure of stone with steps that spiraled down from the surface to the water. Amada had been there several times since they had camped. Now there was a small crowd. Most of the people there were girls like herself, with a few boys and women thrown in. Drawing water was not a task a man would generally do in camp. Amada stood by the entrance until it was her time to go down. As she waited she looked around the compound. In front of the chief’s tent a stake had been pounded into the ground, and the blue man had been tied to it with a leather cord. He was still alive, although it looked like he had been beaten some. Blood stained his face and body. Two boys sat nearby with long, thin sticks. They were saying things at him, too far away for her to hear, but she didn’t think they were kind things. Occasionally one or the other would swat him with a stick. Amada looked away. She wished they would just kill him and get it over with. Then it was her turn, and she entered the well.
The stone was warm at the surface but cooled rapidly as she descended. Lower down the walls of the well were damp. The first time she had visited the well she had only to go down a few dozen steps to reach the water. Now she had to go twice that far; the entire camp only had two wells, and there were many people in the camp. Little of the fading light of day reached down to this level. Amada walked a step or two down into the water, so that she could reach past the muddy water she knew would be at the edge of the well. She filled each of the bottles carefully, knowing this water might need to last her family for several days. She had almost finished when the sounds of shouting filtered down from above. She hurried to fill the last bottles, then struggled back up with the full bottles, her belly knotted with fear. The scene she emerged into was one of chaos. There were people running everywhere, and people shouting. The sky had darkened, and Amada could see that there was a a large fire burning down towards where the animal pen was. Suddenly a goat ran past her, followed by a boy chasing it. They ran into the nearby tents, and Amada could see that there was a fire burning somewhere in the tents as well. She looked down towards where her family’s tent was, and was horrified to see fire and smoke in that direction also. Abandoning the water bottles, Amada starting running home. She hadn’t gotten far when a horse lunged out of the darkness, leaping and neighing. Amada looked up and was startled to see the pale woman and the blue man astride it. The blue man was clinging tightly to the horse’s neck, and the pale woman was clinging tightly to him. He pointed back toward the well, and the horse suddenly lunged past her. It ran to where her water bottles lay and suddenly stopped. The pale woman tumbled off into the dust, then got up, grabbed one of her water bottles, handed it up to the blue man, then climbed back on the horse and rode off with the blue man into the darkness.