The Value Within

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The Value Within (fantasy short story)

© Kasey Mackenzie

[This short was actually my first attempt at first person POV.  Now, that’s probably my favorite POV to use.  Especially for urban fantasy, which it suits so well.  Someday I plan to either re-write this story, or expand it to a novel, since I really love the character and basic storyline but feel it needs a little something-something.]

 

Jagged streaks of lightning sizzled across the sky as I stared out the back door of my home. Daybreak was still more than an hour away, yet nightmares had ripped me from sleep some minutes before. I knew any attempts to go back to sleep would be useless, and so I had come here to brood.

The cool air did not affect me as I stood in the doorway, my gaze sweeping across the surrounding countryside. Streak upon streak of lightning burst from sky to ground, illuminating a land that cried out for relief. Relief from the rain that had soaked it for the past thirty-nine days and nights. Today would mark the fortieth day, and if the rain continued into the night–I would die.

Thoughts of my impending doom caused me to shiver in a way the cool air had not. Wrapping my arms about myself, I cast one last look about the flooded land around my family’s cabin. The rain showed no sign of abating–the Storm God continued showering my people with his anger. I closed my eyes in dismay, for I had been certain that he would hear my prayers of the night before. I did not want to die.

Anger overcame the sudden despair. Slamming the heavy wooden door, I stalked across the kitchen and began preparing the morning meal. My father and brothers would expect it, even on this gloomy, rain-drenched morning that would likely be my last.

“Women are not fit for much beyond cooking and cleaning, but they are valuable enough to be sacrificed to the Storm God,” I muttered under my breath as I kneaded dough for the morning meal. The kneading became pounding. I scarcely cared what sort of meal I provided my menfolk today. They could starve for all I cared.

Perhaps that was an unfair thought, for my father and brothers had always shown me a remarkable amount of affection–at least for the men of my people. Men are the hunters and providers, the fishermen and warriors. They are strong and stoic, rarely deigning to display any emotions that could be construed as weakness. Women–women take care of the home, breeding and raising children that then follow in the steps of their fathers and mothers in an unceasing cycle.

Even the patron gods of my people epitomize this social order. The Storm God is patron of sky and sea, of fishing and sword craft. Patron of the manly arts, in other words. His wife, Jianla, is patron of the earth and hearth, of mothers and babes. In all ways she is the weaker of the two, and subject to her husband’s rule. As all women are subject to their husbands. As was my mother before me. As shall be all women after me.

Of course, if the rain did not end in the next few hours, that might become the least of my concerns.

Finally, I judged the dough sufficiently beaten. I allowed the familiar task of _scoop, roll, fill, and shape_ to become the focus of my body as my mind wandered from my task. Years of similarly spent mornings now gave me precious moments to consider my options. What few there were.

I could flee my village and travel through the wilds to another. I could steal one of the village boats and attempt to row across the Stormsea to another island. I could seduce one of the village Elders into taking my virginity, thereby tying myself to him as a minor wife and escaping my fate as Eldest Virgin. Only virgins could be offered to the Storm God, for it was said Jianla would brook no woman more experienced than she around her hearth.

The first option was no true option. The island of my people was small as islands go, with resources to support only three villages. My own village’s warriors would track me down long before I could reach another, bringing me back in shame and dishonor. Shame not just for me, but for my family as well.
The second option was little better, for no woman possessed knowledge of boats or navigation. And with the raging rains of the Storm God showing no signs of letting up–taking a boat out in this tempest would be sure suicide.

I could never seriously consider the third option either, for the dishonor of such an action would ensure that any first wife would make the rest of my life miserable.

Sudden thumping upstairs broke my train of thought. Using the corner of my apron to dry my tears, I hurriedly finished preparing the meal. The noises from the loft where all five of my brothers slept meant they were awake and dressing in the limited amount of space available to them. I set the table as quickly as possible, pouring mugs of rum cider for all five of my menfolk and milk for myself. It would never do to let them see that I had been weeping. Perhaps I no longer had much, but I still had my dignity.

My father appeared in the kitchen first, since his room–like mine–was on the ground floor. He also had no one to compete with when performing morning ablutions and dressing. No matter my current bitterness against men, I loved my father. The sight of his sun-bleached hair, his clear gray eyes, his deeply tanned skin and wiry but strong build comforted me. At the same time it disturbed me to realize that it might be the last morning I spent with him.

As on so many previous occasions, my father sat at the head of the table, sipping his warmed rum cider. I continued preparing the morning meal, thinking of past meals as I did so. I remembered the morning after my mother’s death, when it became my official duty to care for my father and brothers. No matter the fact I was only twelve years old. I was the woman of the house.

Breakfast that morning was an unappetizing, half-raw lump of dough. My father ate every bit of what I set before him. Upon finishing, he looked at me with a broad smile. “That was an excellent meal, Thia,” he said with a straight face. “I look forward to the next.” The fact he seemed to mean it made me love him all the more. It also enabled me to ignore my brothers’ incredulous looks at his outright lie.

On another morning, just after my first monthly flow, my father demonstrated his love for me in his typical roundabout manner. Somehow, he knew without my saying so that I had become a woman in fact as well as name. Knowing, too, that it would be a hard time for a girl without her mother, he made it as easy for me as he could.

“Thia,” he announced as he entered the kitchen. “I’ve decided we’ll eat leftovers today. Your aunt is feeling poorly, so you should run right over. See if you can help her and Brinni today.”

My eyes searched his face for the meaning behind his words. Taboo prevented man and woman from discussing such a feminine matter. Taboo also prevented man from performing the feminine task of cooking. Yet he always navigated a path through the obstacles posed by taboo, offering me what he could.

I played along, setting out the leftovers even though I knew they would never be enough to satisfy all six men. They would grow hungry long before nooning. That was part of what made the moment so special. My father offered in actions what he could not offer in words. By sending me over to “help” my aunt, my father tended to my needs in the only way open to him.

On those mornings–and many like them–my father made it possible for me to ignore my misgivings. Misgivings that something in our people’s religion was fundamentally wrong. I saw his love for me, remembered his love for my mother, and managed to ignore the doubts that plagued me. For a time.

“Breakfast smells delicious,” my father finally said, breaking into my reverie.

I glanced up from slicing the steaming pan of bread. “Thank you, Papa.”

Even with so few words, my father spoke volumes. “Aye, it smells delicious indeed,” he repeated, taking another sip from his mug. Then, “You should ease up a bit today, Thia.”

I forced myself to continue slicing. I would not cry. I would _not_. “Thank you, Papa. I just might.”

My brothers chose that exact moment to burst into the room, ending the moment between father and daughter. The familiar scene of them jostling for positions around the table almost brought tears to my eyes again, but I held them back as I served first the men and then myself. Once I took my place at the foot of the table, all eyes went to my father.

He cleared his throat, then began the morning prayer, “We thank thee, oh Storm God, for providing the meat for this meal. We thank thee, oh Jianla, for providing the grain for this meal. We thank thee both for sea and sky, for home and hearth, and for watching over us all. Guide our nets and swords, our hands and hearts that we may ever please and honor you. Let it be so.”

His voice nearly cracked near the end of the prayer, causing my brothers to cast uneasy glances at first each other, then at me. I returned their gazes unflinchingly, noticing the slight sadness they allowed to show. Little else, for they were younger and thus more sensitive to their positions than my father. Still, it moved me that they showed even that much.

“Let it be so,” echoed around the table after that brief pause. Albeit with more solemnity than usual.

Despite initial awkwardness, the meal passed much as any other. The men discussed the nets to be repaired, the fishing implements and weapons to be sharpened and made from scratch–the indoor activities that those men who normally fished and hunted would tend to in the communal cabin since the weather allowed nothing else. Even on this day, the fortieth since the spring squall had begun, the men would go about their normal tasks. It showed their faith in the Storm God–and of course the security that all men had in knowing their lives would continue the same as before no matter what that evening might bring for some poor girl. For me.

The meal ended, and all six men clumped to the pegs hung by the back door. Chaos ensued as they shrugged on oilskin cloaks and boots, gathering up the implements they had left beside the door the night before. Only my father hung back as my brothers bid me terse farewells before slogging out into the storm swept morning.

Another clearing of his throat, then, “Thia–your mother left a box for you. She wanted you to have it on–on your wedding day. I put it on your bed.” His voice cracked more obviously before he finished, “We’ll take our nooning at the communal cabin, but we’ll be back for supper.”

He disappeared into the drenching downpour before I could say anything, door slamming shut behind him with an almost sinister bang. Habit saw me clear the remains of the morning meal from the table as I considered his words. Staring at the dishes piled in the sink, I decided to leave them there rather than wash them. Who would chide me, on today of all days? Even more importantly–what did I care if anyone did?

The lure of my mother’s gift pulled me straight to the tiny room at the rear of the cabin that served as my only oasis in the overpoweringly masculine home. I closed my eyes when I reached the door, picturing the image of my mother from my favorite childhood memory.

Long, golden blonde hair wound about her head in an intricate braid; a style that I faithfully duplicated each and every morning. Blue eyes the same shade as the summer sky; eyes that I saw each time I looked in a mirror. Sweet, gentle features that formed a pleasant–though admittedly not beautiful–face, and a small, although somewhat plump, build. Features that I also saw whenever I beheld my own reflection.

Tears welled up in my eyes once more, but I pushed them away as I opened the door and ducked into my room. A small wooden wardrobe, an equally small table and chair, and a narrow bed were the sole furnishings of the room. It may have been sparse, but it was my own, and thus treasured. My eyes went instantly to the bed–and the elegantly engraved box that sat upon it. I caught my breath at its simple beauty.

I was across the room in two strides, sitting upon the bed and touching the box with an almost reverent caress. I had seen only twelve summers when my mother died, struggling vainly to bring forth yet another child for hearth and home. As was her “duty.” Neither she nor the babe–my only sister–made it through the difficult birth. They were buried together, next to the vegetable garden my mother loved to care for. I know she would have approved of the choice.

The box was made of heavy pine, a wood that was rare indeed in this part of the world. I eased the lid of it upward, marveling at the soundlessness of its hinges as I raised it. My father must have kept them well oiled–an act that spoke of his love for my mother more than any words ever could. The box was small, perhaps a foot in both width and length. What I saw inside it took my breath away.

Jewelry such as I had never owned nestled inside that little box–jewelry that only a married woman would wear. A married woman, or a bride.

I tried to push that thought from my mind, as it reminded me only too well the wedding I would likely never have. Instead, I reached into the box and brought out piece after piece of exotic jewelry. Earrings wrought of the finest silver, set with small sapphires the exact shade of my mother’s eyes. Dozens of bangles made from the most delicate of beaten silver. Silver rings for each finger save the bridal finger. The rings were simple in design, plain bands decorated only with an alternating pattern engraved on each. Anklets that matched the bangles, save for the tiny bells dangling from each, and the clasps that would allow them to be fastened.

I placed each new item upon my bed with the utmost care; savoring the closeness it made me feel to the mother I had not seen in more than four summers. I thought I had removed all the jewelry from the box when a shining glint caught my eyes. I reached my hand in and removed an item that had been carefully wrapped in cloth, although one end of it peeked through. I unwrapped the cloth and was taken back in memory when my eyes saw what my hands now held. I remembered when my mother first showed it to me…

Sunlight glittered from the object my mother held in her hands. She leaned back on her haunches in a position that I tried–and failed–to imitate. A mild summer breeze tugged at the golden hair wound about her head, but failed to cause disarray. I would always picture my mother in that way–cool, calm, and at all times collected.

The item flashed again, catching my childish curiosity. “What’s that, mama?”

Lips curved in a strange smile as she lifted it higher so I could see it better. An intricate object suspended from a silver chain made of wide links. I could not say exactly what that object was, for my eyes were blinded by the beauty of the gems which encrusted it.

“Oh, my heart, I could tell you what this is, but you would not understand. Instead, I will _show_ you.”

Plump but graceful fingers pressed several of the gems in quick succession. A soft snap echoed in the air around us, and the object in her hands seemed to–split in two. One half now a gem-encrusted hollow, the other a gleaming silvery–blade!

Even the young child that I was then felt intense unease at the sight of that slender, eight-inch length of metal. Women could wield cooking and eating utensils, no matter how sharp or deadly, but only men were allowed to touch actual weapons. And the jagged-edged dagger in my mother’s hand was most definitely a weapon.

“Mama?” My voice emerged as a shocked squeak.

My mother twirled the blade in her hands swiftly, causing the glints of sunlight to twist in an intricate dance. Many emotions flickered across her face, some of which an twelve-year-old could not name. I did, however, recognize two for what they were. Sadness–and regret.

Abruptly she slid the dagger back into its sheath. Once again it seemed nothing more than a beautifully wrought–if oddly shaped–piece of jewelry. A strange decoration made to hang about the neck, gleaming with silver, sapphires, and even a few rare diamonds.

My mother’s blue eyes suddenly bore into mine as she leaned forward and offered the chain to me. I hesitated for only a moment before curiosity overcame me. Reaching for the chain, I grinned almost guiltily as I put it around my neck. It hung well past my chest, nearly touching the ground upon which I knelt. My hands flickered over the dagger softly, slowly. I waited for an explanation. Soon, it came.

“You must never tell anyone about this, Thia love. Not about the dagger around your neck or the words I am about to speak. Here, among your father’s people–they could spell death for us both.”

I shifted in unease. My fingers tightened on the blade as I listened in wary fascination. I had always known my mother was _sheylet_, an outlander, but neither she nor my father ever spoke of her past or how she came to our village. The golden hair and summer-sky eyes we shared spoke of her foreign origins clearly, but rare were those outlanders who came to the Stormsea Isles.

Even more rare were those who would–who could–adapt to the ways of my people and become an accepted part of its society. Many among the _sheylet_ would rather die than be assimilated by what they considered a barbarian culture. My mother had chosen life–but in that moment I caught some sense of what that survival had cost her.

My mother seemed to compose her thoughts carefully before continuing. “You know that I am _sheylet_, but you can’t possibly understand what that truly means. All you know is what you’ve been taught. I haven’t dared teach you otherwise, not being so far from my own people and trapped on this island as I have been. But you must understand this, my daughter, if nothing else. Women are more than what the men here say they are.”

She closed her eyes briefly, battling some inner demon I could not name. I struggled to grasp the concept she was trying to impart. It was difficult for a child of scarcely twelve summers. What did I know of the world beyond this island save that which others chose to reveal?

“Twenty summers ago the captain of the ship my family traveled on made a very stupid mistake. He decided to try to cross the Stormsea during the spring squall. Our ship was destroyed. I lost everything I loved on that day–my family, my betrothed, my identity as a woman of my people. Your father found me clinging to a piece of driftwood the next day, when the rains finally stopped.”

I listened intently, childishly assuming this would be the romantic end of the story. My father saved my mother, so of course the two must live happily thereafter. I was wrong.

“I won’t claim that it was love at first sight for your father and me, for that would be far from the truth.” A slight smile played about her lips as a hint of affection entered her voice. “I may have been half-drowned and a woman, but I fought like a she-cat when I saw the half-naked Islander who had rescued me. The law of the Isles gave him the right to claim me for his own, and claim me he did. I am afraid that he got far more than he bargained for.

“I tried so many times those first few months to escape, but then–then I became with child. And slowly, much to my own dismay, I found myself falling in love with your father.” She shook her head softly, “Ah, my heart, the joke was on me at that point. Once I saw what a wonderful father he was, and how he had softened towards me, I was lost. There were no more escape attempts after that. Instead, I sought to make life here more bearable for myself.

“I know you find this difficult to comprehend, my heart. Beyond the Stormsea the Storm God does _not_ reign supreme. Beyond these isles women are _not_ defined by what the men allow them to do. They can be more than wives and mothers, more than cooks and slaves to their husbands and sons.

“Beyond this place, I was once more than what I am now. Out there, my husband could not beat me if I displeased him. Out there, my sons could not degrade me in front of an entire village for chastising them. Out there, an innocent maiden would _not_ be murdered for some superstitious belief that the Storm God demanded it.”

Ahhh, the heart of my mother’s strange mood. Only the week before a Sacrifice had been demanded, and a Virgin bride had been sent to her new husband–and a watery grave. All I understood was that my mother’s friend had lost her only daughter, and I the older playmate who often cared for me when my mother was busy. To my mother, it represented a deeper injustice. One born of ignorance and inequality of the sexes. One she could do nothing about, and it ate away at her in places others could not see.

“I once made the mistake of assuming the women of this village would welcome the ‘revelation’ that they could be more than household servants and breeders of children.” A self-deprecating laugh burst from her lips. “I became so bold as to suggest ways–peaceful ways–in which they could protest their inferior treatment and place in society. They soon made it clear to me that they saw no reason to change what had been for many generations. After all, they were all quite happy in their roles. It seemed that I was the only one who wanted something…more.

“Eventually, I came to respect their beliefs–though I have never understood them. And once I gave birth to a precious daughter–to you–I did not wish to cause trouble for either of us, so I gave up my attempts at changing things here. Life here has been difficult for me, but my husband and children have made it worthwhile.

“My hope for you is that you can succeed where I have failed–serving as a bridge between your father’s culture and my own. Perhaps, since you are more a part of them than I am, someday you can bring about change, no matter how small or large. Maybe you can help the men to see that women are deserving greater respect and value. That is my fondest wish for you, my daughter.

“No matter what happens, though, I want you to remember this one thing above all others–you are more than what any man says you are. I have faith in you, Thia. In your sharp mind and independent nature. I do not know what the future holds, but I know you will not go quietly along forever with what these men dictate. Someday, you will fight. And I know you will win. Because you are _more_ than what any man says you are.”

She placed her hands over mine, guiding them in the steps that released the dagger from its ornate sheath. When confident that I could release the blade on my own, she reclaimed both dagger and sheath. Wrapping them in a heavy cloth, she regarded me once more. “Remember what I have shown you, and what I have told you. Repeat them to no one here, but remember them well. Someday they may save you.”

My mother died not long after that day. Perhaps that is why her words managed to cut so deeply through the layers of twelve years’ indoctrination among my people. I think her words resonated so clearly both because she spoke with such passion and because it was the final private conversation between mother and daughter.

In the years since her death those words have always been in the back of my mind. And while I have managed to walk the fine line between questioning ancient custom and open defiance, her words speak to me still.

* * *

Breaking from my childhood memory, I stared down at the dagger as I repeated her words softly. “Someday they may save you.” Just perhaps–they could.* * *

Fear ate away at my earlier certainty as solemn drumbeats echoed in the late evening air, beating in counterpoint to the pounding rain that still soaked the earth. I tried to fortify myself with faith in both my mother and myself, but it was the most difficult thing I had ever done.

Guards of honor escorted me through the rough dirt roads of the village, carrying an awning above me so that I would not get wet. Not yet, at any rate. The married women of the village had spent hours carefully bathing and preparing me for this moment.

I glittered and dazzled as I passed hut after hut, each simple wooden structure now empty. The entire village awaited my arrival for the coming ceremony. Such hypocrisy. I was _not_ an eager bride going to her bridegroom. I was a hostage. A murder victim. A Sacrifice. It made me sick to my stomach.

I stepped onto the swaying dock, still sheltered from the rain by my honor guard. I couldn’t keep my eyes from moving to the boat that could be my last resting place. My people were expert shipbuilders. This, the boat that would be gifted to the Storm God to appease his anger, was as fine a boat as they could build.

Nearly as wide as it was long, the boat stretched more than a dozen feet in each direction. From time spent watching the men construct similar boats I knew that they had fashioned it from some of the larger trees near the center of the island. They used a glue made from the same trees to help strengthen the pieces that they then nailed together. A watertight tar sealed the wood in the final step of shipbuilding.

This particular boat, deliberately designed to bear its cargo to the depths of the sea, had no keel or rudder for stabilization or steering. Of course, this fact did nothing to reassure me as I was lead closer to my waiting doom.

The next few moments passed in a blur for me. The women loaded the waiting boat with dishes they had spent most of the day preparing. The children added baskets of fruit and vegetables from each family’s private caches. The men had actually built the boat and provided the meat for the dishes. Each person contributed something to this offering meant to appease the Storm God’s anger and end the spring squall before the village was destroyed. My contribution was–my very life.

The Chief Elder stepped forward, gesturing and blessing me in formulaic ritual. “This woman offers her virginity and all that she is to her bridegroom. She comes, pure and untouched, promising to give obedience and respect to her husband always. It is her deepest honor to serve the Storm God, and in serving give up the mortal coils of this life and pass on to the next, gaining immortality in her selfless act of Sacrifice. Let it be so.”

The villagers responded, “Let it be so.” I remained silent, glancing at my father and brothers. Tradition demanded they remain stoic in the face of their loss–their contribution to this offering.

At last, all ritual had been observed. My honor guard lashed the awning to the poles specially built on the deck of the boat for this purpose. Then, they secured me to the pole in the center of the deck to ensure I would not be swept away in the midst of the storm that raged all around. They tied my waist to the pole with stout rope, not so tightly it hurt but securely enough that I would not be able to easily undo the knots. Bowing in deference to me–the only times women are shown true respect are in marriage and childbirth–they jumped from the deck back to the dock where the others waited.

The Chief Elder stepped onto the boat, gesturing and chanting once more. Then, the inevitable occurred. He bent over at the bow of the boat and removed the _abbrin_. Gesturing one final time, he, too, leaped from the boat.

I bit down on a scream as the honor guard released the moorings of the boat and pushed it out to sea. Even in the storm-tossed waters the tide was inexorable–the boat was swiftly swept away from the dock and towards the heart of the Storm God’s domain.

“Jianla, give me strength,” I whispered as I waited to be far enough from land to do what I planned. I knew that I would have only a few moments, for the removal of the _abbrin_–the cover of the hole bored into vessels bearing Sacrifices–meant that water was now steadily pouring into the boat. Water poured down from the sky, too, for the cloth awning did little more than shield me somewhat from the worst of the rain. My little boat would soon begin to sink–and secured to the post as I was, I would drown even more rapidly.

Finally I judged that I was far enough from land that I could act. Trembling hands moved to my neck, caressing the gift my mother had bequeathed me. Murmuring another prayer to Jianla, I released dagger from sheath and forced my fingers to hold steady.

Ignoring the damp and coldness of the rain, I fumbled with the dagger as I began sawing through the bonds securing me to the post. The blade felt strange in my hands as I wielded it for such an unusual task–the most I ever did with knives was chop vegetables and slice meat. My awareness of my peril and panic at the quickly filling boat did not help matters, either. I did not want to die.

It seemed to take hours, but at last I managed to free myself from the post. Sobbing in relief, I returned the dagger to its sheath and hurled the tattered remains of the ropes as far into the churning waves as I could. Steadying myself once more, I enacted the next step of my fight for survival.

Many of the dishes placed upon the boat were in waterproof bowls made by the women. I selected the largest of these, tossing its contents into the sea. Then, I began to scoop the water gathering at the bottom of the ship, pouring it back into the ocean from where it had come. Life narrowed drastically for me, becoming only three actions: scoop, pour, and repeat. Scoop, pour, and repeat.

I had only to bail faster than the water could fill the boat. It had seemed so simple to me when first I conceived the plan. The reality proved far different than what I envisioned, of course. Water entered the boat from both above and below. Whereas I was constrained by my own strength and stamina, the water faced no such weakness. A faceless, relentless, tireless enemy it proved. Yet I swore I would _not_ succumb. I was _more_ than what any man said I was. Even if that man was the Storm God himself. I would live.

The next hours were as terrifying as they were life altering for me. I learned that I possessed reserves of strength both physical and mental that I had never dreamed I had. My mother’s words and faith in me rang in my inner ear, and I struggled to be worthy of them. I bailed long after my hands began trembling from bone-numbing fatigue. I bailed long after blisters formed on my fingers and tore open. I bailed long after logic told me that I was fighting a losing battle. I bailed.

It took a long time for me to notice that the weather had calmed considerably. The driving downpour faded to a brisk shower, and then to a gentle trickle. Only when it stopped altogether did I look up from my task. Bleary eyes looked out at the still-choppy sea, uncomprehending at first. The rain had ended.

Slowly, realization sank in. The rain had ended. After 40 harrowing days–and one horrible night–the worst spring squall in almost a decade had ended. I could take a respite from the bailing at last. I leaned back on my haunches in an unconscious imitation of my mother. I took time to look out at the ocean surrounding me, suddenly sensing the seriousness of my situation.

I had survived the spring squall. I had not gone to the watery grave that so many of my sisters before me had met. And yet, how much better off was I truly? I had food and water for the moment, yet no paddles to use and no idea of where dry land might be. Instead of drowning quickly, now I would slowly starve to death with time enough to agonize over my doom.

I was nearly ready to give in to despair once more when I remembered that long-ago day with my mother once more. She had taught me that appearances could be deceiving. A harmless piece of jewelry could house a deadly weapon inside. A seemingly insignificant woman could rise above what society demanded of her and survive on her own terms. I was overlooking my salvation because I was looking at things the way a woman of my people would do. Instead, I would look through the eyes of my mother.

Another tense moment passed before I saw it. The poles that had once secured the awning overhead–it now hung in tatters, having been battered by the previous night’s storm–were sturdy but relatively thin. I crawled over to the nearest pole, afraid of unbalancing the boat. I pursed my lips as I considered. Yes, I thought it could be done. A smile spread across my face as I nodded in excitement.

“Yes, it will work!” I exulted, releasing the dagger from its sheath once more and blessing my mother a hundred times over.

It seemed to alleviate my loneliness, speaking as if my mother could hear me. And who knew, maybe she could? I eyed the pole, finding a spot I could comfortably reach that would still provide the length I wanted, and began sawing against it with the dagger. It was not much easier work than the previous night’s bailing had been, and sore muscles screamed in protest as I moved the blade in a monotonous pattern. Back and forth, back and forth. Over and over and over again.

Despite the slenderness of the pole, I began to fear that the dagger would grow too dull to use as I continued sawing. Luck was on my side, however, and the dagger was still relatively sharp when I judged I had sawn through the pole enough. Returning the dagger to its sheath, I began twisting the pole from side to side, pushing it farther and farther each way. I was rewarded with several splinters for my efforts, but at last the pressure was enough to snap through the pole.

“It worked, Mama!” I crowed, waving the pole overhead as if it were a sword and I a triumphant warrior. “Now I can make my own paddle.” I felt no less proud of myself than a warrior would feel after a successful raid on another village. Perhaps I had not taken the life of another, but I had saved my own life just the same.

I crawled along the deck of the boat once more, stopping at the containers of food–but this time not to eat. More than two dozen containers had been lashed to the deck using rope threaded through rings nailed into the boat itself. I found one edge of the rope and quickly used the dagger to slice through and free it from the ring. I then carefully unthreaded the length of rope from each of the rings, unwinding it also from each of the baskets. At last I held a considerable length of rope in my hands, satisfied that it would be enough. It _had_ to be enough.

By this time I noticed that water from the bow of the ship now lapped at the first of the containers of food. I had almost forgotten about the hole in the boat. Cursing under my breath, I scurried to the front and began bailing once more. It was a much quicker proposition this time, for no deluge poured water into the boat from above anymore. After a quarter-hour I was satisfied that I would be safe for another hour or so. Then I would take the time to figure out a way to plug the hole in the boat. For now I wanted to finish my project.

Taking the container back to the middle of the boat with me, I looked from it to the rope and pole I had cut. Nodding once more, I attached container to pole and began looping the rope around them both. It took me several false starts and re-starts, but finally I managed to lash the two together. I now held in my hands a crude but recognizable oar!

“I told you it would work, Mama,” I whispered as a tear trickled down my cheek. My certainty had been an exaggeration, however. I hadn’t been entirely sure that I would have the strength to do what needed to be done. The realization that I _had_ was liberating.

With my crude oar now fashioned, I turned to the task of plugging the hole. This did not seem to take nearly as long as striking upon the idea to make my own paddle had. Of course, plugging a hole was closer to the work I was used to doing back home. I simply cut down a large portion of the shredded awning, gathered a small jug of rum cider, and moved back to the bow of the boat.

I tossed the rum cider over the side, not trusting the fermented brew I rarely drank. I wanted all my wits about me, and rum cider had always made me fuzzyheaded. Next I wrapped the cloth around the slender jug, then forced both jug and cloth into the hole. At first they would not fit. After cutting away some of the cloth, however, I was able to work them into the hole. My own _abbrin_. The tight fit worked to my advantage, for the leak had now slowed down to a tiny trickle. It would do.

By now I was completely exhausted from my efforts. Returning to the center of the boat, I managed to force down some more food. After cutting down more of the ruined awning, I used it as a makeshift pillow and curled up at the stern of the boat. I yawned as I thought proudly of all I had accomplished. My mother had been right. Women were worth more than the work they could do or the children they provided. I thought she might be proud of me, if she were looking down on me now.

“With the hole sealed up, and the oar I made, I can make it to dry land, Mama. I have food and drink enough to make it. I know I do.”

I smiled softly as I thought of what my mother’s gift had given me. My life.

I shifted in order to find a more comfortable spot. “If I make it back to the village, they will have no choice but to admit that the Elders are wrong. We _don’t_ have to Sacrifice a virgin to end the spring squall. I am still alive, and the rain stopped anyway. Perhaps they’ll view it as a sign from the Storm God that the Sacrifice should stop.”

I thought about that for a moment, imagining a time when young women my age would not have to fear each time the spring squall came. It was an image I enjoyed. It was an image worth fighting for.

“But even if they don’t, Mama, I won’t stop fighting. And someday, maybe more of them will see. Women are worth _more_ than what any man says they are. You surely were. And thanks to you, so am I.”

That was my last coherent thought before oblivion claimed me. Yet my dreams were filled with brighter visions than they had been two nights ago. This time I actually had hope for the future. I had escaped certain doom thanks to my mother’s gift, and more importantly, my own resolve.

And in my dreams my mother’s words echoed time and time again: “Someday, you will fight. And I know you will win. Because you are _more_ than what any man says you are.”

As are we all.

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