“You no longer please me,” Tarik said. “Gather your things and go.”
And with those words, I was banished.
I did not cry. I did not beg. All that would have gotten me was a beating, and in the end, nothing would have changed. My husband no longer desired me, so I was of no use to him. I could either walk away with my head high or be dragged from the village with the promise of Sobro if I returned.
Mosie stood behind and to the left of Tarik, as was proper for a wife. Her smooth round face held nothing but scorn as she watched me. I wondered if she would remember this day when she was standing where I was now, when she had lost the blush of youth and was turned out. Probably not. When I had been brought into Tarik’s hut six summers ago to replace one of his aged wives, I am sure the same contempt had shown in my eyes.
Head down and lips pressed together, I shoved my few dresses and leggings, my combs and spare boots, into my pack. Then I turned to Kaia, who was nursing my son and hers, tears running down her cheeks. She did not look up at me. I no longer existed.
“Please take care of him,” I said.
A blow landed across my shoulders, knocking me to my knees. Before I could draw a breath, I was being hauled up by my hair.
“Go!” Tarik snarled, shoving me through the door flap.
My back throbbing in pain, I stumbled out into the sunshine. No one spoke to me, no one looked at me, not even the children. All turned their backs, even my friend Ishia who had been wed to Mbark seven moons ago. Anger crowded out the near panic gripping my insides when I saw the purple and yellow bruises on her sweet face.
When I drew near The Teaching Hut, Old Neiuk waved me over. He was the only person allowed to speak to a woman who had been banished. I had spent my early life in his hut, the largest in the village, as had all girls from the time of weaning until their first bleed when they became women and were taken as wives. Under his guidance, girls learned their place, learned how to please their future husbands. He was a wise man and kinder than most.
I stopped in front of Neiuk and bowed my head.
“I see it is your time, Iniki,” he said.
I addressed him as I had been taught. “Yes, Father.”
“You may see me.”
I raised my eyes to his face. “Thank you, Father.”
“Go now to the lilput tree by the river,” he said. “I will come for you shortly and show you the way.”
“The way…the way to where?” There was only one place for me to go: the forest, where the demons that ate women walked.
“No questions. Now go, do as I say.” He turned away, dismissing me.
My eyes lingered on the backs of the girls nearest The Learning Hut. A hurtful longing filling my heart, I wondered if any of them were my daughters. I drew a ragged breath, then, with a last sweeping glance at my village, walked away.
Neiuk led the way downstream. We followed the water’s path, stopping only once when the sun was high for a meal of dried meat and berries. No words passed between us until late in the day when he bade me stop.
“Here you go on without me,” he said. “Cross the river and—”
Before I could call them back, the words left my mouth in a fearful rush. “But the demons! If you leave me, they will kill me and eat me!” Every girl knew what happened to any foolish enough to leave the village without a man. “Father, I…I…oh…” A more immediate fear swallowed my voice. Every girl also knew what happened when she interrupted a man.
I shut my eyes and braced for the coming blow.
Instead, I felt a gentle hand settle on my shoulder.
“See me, Iniki,” Neiuk said softly.
I opened my eyes and met those of my teacher, surprised by the sympathy I found there.
“There are no demons in the forest,” he said. “Only birds and animals.”
No demons? That could not be! All my life I had been warned of—
“I tell you a-thing-that-is-true, Iniki, there are no demons.”
“But, Father, we were told…you said—”
“You were told, all girls were told there are demons in the forest to keep you safe.”
Why would we be told a-thing-that-is-not-true? It made no sense. “To keep us safe…I do not understand.”
“What happens if a girl runs away and is caught?”
“The same thing that happens if she tries to enter the village after banishment: Sobro.” My stomach drew up into a tight, sick knot. Would I ever forget the screams that could last for days, the stench of cooking flesh?
“Better to live believing in forest demons than to die by Sobro.”
It was a lot to take in, almost impossible to believe. “So all this time…”
“Yes, Iniki, I told you a-thing-that-is-not-true. I told all the girls…to keep all of you safe.”
When I had been under Neiuk’s care, many of the girls had spoken of running, but because of the forest demons, few were brave enough to attempt it. And those that had, had been caught and died by Sobro—except for one: Anya. She had never been found. The men said the demons ate her, and I had believed it true.
Neiuk pulled the strap of his pouch from his shoulder and draped it over mine. “There is enough food in here to finish your journey,” he said. “And an ember in a kroak horn for your fire.”
Dread clutched my heart. I did not know which things he had spoken were true and which things were not true. All I knew was that he was leaving me alone—and I had never been alone in my life—in a forest where demons may or may not walk.
I grabbed his arm, in my fear heedless that I was overstepping my bounds. “Please do not leave me, Father.”
“You will be fine, Iniki.”
He pried off my hand, and I felt something cold and hard replace his warm skin. I glanced down as he closed my fingers over the hilt of a knife.
“This belongs to you now.” He stepped back and held out his spear. “And this.”
He was giving me his weapons. But women were not allowed weapons. “Why are you…what?”
“You will need them in your new life.” He took my shoulders and turned me to face the river. “Cross here where it is shallow. Keep going downstream, and in two suns, you will be there.”
I clutched both knife and spear in my quaking hands, swallowed the lump in my throat. “Be where, Father?”
“At the Village of Useless Women.”
On my walk with the river, I slept little. Fearful of the forest demons that might or might not exist, I could not rest. When I stopped at nightfall, camping with my back to the river and my eyes on the darkness beneath the trees, if I was not thinking of demons, I was thinking about the Village of Useless Women.
I had heard whispers among the women of such a place, but like most had believed it a myth. Did not God the Father of All Men say that He had created women for men to use, as He had all the other creatures that walked the earth? And when a man no longer had need of a woman, she should be turned out into the wild to nourish the forest demons? But I had seen no demons, had heard no demons since leaving my village. It could well be that Old Neiuk had told me a-thing-that-is-true, about the demons and the Village of Useless Women.
On the morning of the second sun, as I eased Old Neiuk’s pack over my shoulder and took up the knife and spear, though my body was heavy from lack of sleep, my heart felt light. For the first time in my life, I dared hope for a future.
As I trudged along, the sun beating down from high overhead, I picked up the faint murmur of voices. Alarmed, I rushed from the river’s edge into the forest. Watched and listened.
Downstream, walking with the river in my direction, two men came into view. Dressed in deerskin legging, shirts, and boots, both had a cletch of squirrels and bobbets strung about their waists. Each had a bow and quiver of arrows over their shoulder.
Heart pounding, hand over my mouth, I squatted behind a thick cover of nut vines as they approached. I dared not make myself known. Who knew what they might do if they saw me.
As they were passing my hiding place, I took in their long hair, soft features, and high voices. These were not men; they were women. Women dressed as men.
I stepped out behind them. “Wait!”
Both spun around, nocking arrows as they did so.
I fell back, dropped both the knife and spear, and raised my hands.
The two women lowered their bows. The taller one said, “Who are you, traveler?”
“I am Iniki, wife of…wife of…” I was going to say wife of Tarik, but that was no longer so. I was wife to no one; I had no identity. “I am Iniki.”
“And where are you going?” said the shorter, younger woman.
“I seek a place called the Village of Useless Women.”
They glanced at each other and laughed. I had never heard a woman laugh before. It was a strange, beautiful sound.
The taller one’s dancing blue eyes returned to me. “I am Kai, and this is Ilay,” she said, motioning to the other woman. “Pick up your weapons and come with us. We will take you to our village, though you will see we are far from useless.”
Walking between Kai and Ilya, I entered The Village of Useless Women. Everywhere I looked, women from about my age to the very old were working, stirring cooking pots, sewing, tanning hides, tending crops, doing all the things women did in my village, but instead of silence, voices and laughter rode upon the air. When the women saw me, one by one, they approached, gently touched my arm—some more bold offered a quick hug—and with broad smiles, said, “Welcome home, sister.”
And I did not see a man.
Not one, single man.
I had been at Women’s Home—they did not call it the Village of Useless Women—for a little over four moons when Kai and Ilya came back from hunting with a woman: my friend Ishia. Pale, covered in bruises, and bleeding from between her legs, she leaned heavily on Kai and Ilya.
“Bring her to my hut,” I said. “I will care for her.”
Kai and Ilay brought Ishia to the hut all the women had helped me build when I had arrived, and eased her down onto my sleeping mat.
“I will send Old Bindi to care for her wounds,” Kai said before following Ilya through the door flap.
I held a cup of water to Ishia’s lips, and as she drank greedily, smoothed the tangled, sun-kissed curls from her face.
I said, “I hoped that I would see your face again, but I did not expect it to be this soon.”
One rain-cloud eye opened a slit; the other was purple and swollen shut. “Mbark banished me when I lost his child. He said…” A sob caught in her throat. “He said I was of no use to him or any man since I could not bear a child.”
I said what I had not when she had lost the first one. “If he had not struck and kicked you in the belly, you would have kept it.” Unlike most men, Mbark did not take care where he hit when his wives were carrying.
“It was my fault.” Ishia’s one fearful eye roamed the hut as if searching for a listening man. “If I had been stronger, if I had submitted to my husband better, I would not have lost the baby.”
Angry heat blossomed in my chest. “Who says it was your fault?”
“God the Father of All Men. He taught that all bad things spring from women because of their sin. You know that, Iniki.”
Yes, I did know that—or I had known that. But since coming to Women’s Home, I had not just survived but prospered without men telling me what I could and could not do. And on the nights I sat with Kai and Ilya and the other women, and we talked of God the Father of All Men, and what we had been taught, I had grown to believe, as did most of the women, that we had been told things-that-are-not-true.
It was not right!
Less than a moon later, Kai and Ilya came back from hunting with a body. I recognized the battered face of Moia, an older girl who had still been under Neiuk’s care when I had been banished. Equal parts sadness and anger twisted and twined in my heart.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
Ilya said, “We found her by the river where most cross. Her spirit had already departed her body, but she could not have been there long. Animals had not touched her.”
I looked for wounds on Moia, but could not find anything other than bruises and a broken arm, nothing that would have killed her. But I knew that sometimes unseen things inside got broken, leading to death. But who would do such a thing to a girl barely a woman?
A man. Any man.
My anger grew so big I could barely see through the red veil covering my vision. “This is not right,” I hissed through clenched teeth. I looked up at Kai and Ilya, my fisted hands shaking. “This is not right!”
“You say a-thing-that-is true,” Ilya said, brushing tears from her cheeks. “But what can we do?”
Along with every able-bodied woman, I waited in the dark forest outside my old village for all within to fall asleep. Then we waited longer still.
When the moon dipped behind the trees, Kia and Ilya, the best of our hunters, melted soundlessly into the darkness. After another brief wait, Kai stepped into the village clearing and motioned us to come. The guards were dead.
The time had come to right all the wrongs.
Knives in our hands and hatred in our hearts, we moved forward.
©️2020 KT Workman
Image via Pixabay