The Way Things Are
“Joby!” Sheena was screaming at me again from the clearing in the forest, where all of the caravans were sitting. “Joby, you better get your butt home before I come in there and get you. And if I have to find you, you are going to be in real trouble!”
“You better go, Joby,” my best friend, River, teased, “Your mommy is calling you.”
“I’m not afraid of her!” I spit back, climbing higher in the tree we were in. “She’s not my mother anyway. I don’t have to listen to her.”
It had been eight years and Sheena had accidently let it slip the morning before that she was not really my mother. I had taken it badly and decided that instead of accepting the fact that I had been adopted by her, I was going to challenge her authority.
“Okay,” River stammered, taken aback by my statement, “but I am afraid of her. And if she finds you, she’s going to find me. Then we will both be in trouble. Please, just go home.”
“I don’t want to,” I stated firmly, “I’m going to find my real mother.”
River looked at me, pleading with his eyes. Then he began to climb down the tree. I knew Sheena could not see me in the trees, so it came as a shock to me when River ran up to her and pointed me out. I fumed. I would make sure to beat him up good that night.
“Chicken!” I screamed at him. “Tattle tail!”
“Get down here now!” Sheena scolded at me. “Or I will come up and get you.”
I knew at this point that it would be a mistake for me not to come down and face her. I shot River a dirty look as my feet touched the ground, and he ran away back to the clearing. He knew what was coming to him.
“I’ve been yelling at you for half an hour and you didn’t answer me. I know you could hear me from those trees. What were you thinking?” Sheena began to lecture. “You know when I start yelling at you it’s probably for a good reason.”
“I was looking for my real mother,” I shot back. I wished that I wouldn’t have the moment I saw her face. She looked a little hurt. I never saw Sheena look that hurt before.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Never mind,” Sheena sighed, “the caravan is moving again.”
“Why?” I asked, upset. “We’ve only been here for two days, the last spot we only stayed at for four days. Why are we moving so much? I might be eight, but I’m not stupid. Something is going on. We usually stay at places for a month or more before we move on.”
“I can’t tell you yet,” Sheena said, apologetically, “I want to, but I can’t. You are too young, and I need you to just listen to me. I know you too well to know that if I tell you what is happening, you are going to go looking for trouble.”
“I won’t,” I pleaded, “I promise.”
“If you have anything that isn’t already in the caravan,” Sheena said forcefully, “you better go get it now. We will be leaving within an hour. We are going deeper within the forest. I think we might be making a new clearing.”
The tribe rarely made a new clearing. In the eight years that I had been in the tribe, I had only seen it done one other time when I was five. The tribes in the forest had many clearings and would share them, as we were all nomadic. When a new tribe would come upon a clearing, they would fix it up and it would be left a little neater for the next tribe than if the tribes never shared. This kept every tribe in peace with each other. If a clearing was already inhabited, the two tribes would come together for a short period and share stories and secrets before one of the tribes decided to move on. Sometimes there would be a marriage between two members of different tribes, so it created a beneficial social environment as well. To make a new clearing that the other tribes didn’t know about was exciting and a little bit rebellious, because the point of a clearing was so that everyone could use it if they needed it.
By the time we had been on the trail for a while, I knew something was definitely going on, and I got the strange feeling that it had something to do with me. The grown-ups were constantly saying things to each other, whispering so that the children couldn’t hear them. Every once in a while I would look up to see an adult staring at me with a look of alarm on their face. They would quickly look away and pretend they were too busy with the moving to notice me. Throughout the move, people would inexplicably come up next to me and ask me how I was doing, and if I needed anything. It was as if they were all trying to keep an extremely close eye on me. I blamed Sheena. I thought that she might have said something to the tribe about me running off and not answering her.
By the third night of trudging deeper and deeper into the woods, we all got a shock. There was a new clearing. But there was something off about this one. It wasn’t fully finished. That meant that the tribe that started it, couldn’t have lived there for more than two days before moving on. It didn’t even seem worth it to start a project and then to leave it right away. Something made the tribe leave.
“We can’t go this way anymore,” Grandmother shouted above all of the whispering voices. “It’s obvious that going deeper into the forest isn’t going to help us.”
“Well, then where do we go?” Someone called out. “The children are tired, and frankly so are we.”
“We’ll stay here for the night.” Grandmother said. “If this place was already hit, we should be safe for at least the night.”
That night, as I was sleeping inside the caravan, I was awoken by the sound of Grandmother and Sheena talking in hushed voices outside. I slipped quietly out of my bed and crept to the door so that I could hear what they were saying.
“Grandmother,” Sheena pleaded, “we need to send Joby away somewhere. It’s becoming too dangerous for her here now. I don’t think that we can protect her here anymore. We can go into town and see if we can find someone to take her in. She can do chores to earn her keep until this all blows over. Then we can bring her back.”
“And would you want to be sent away from the forest when it is the only thing you have ever known?” Grandmother argued furiously. “Besides, how are we going to send her away without her knowing why she is being sent away in the first place? That is something we both agree that we cannot tell her yet. And if something were to happen to the tribe? She will probably lose her necklace if we keep it with us, and she might be found easily if we tell her about it and send it with her. She will either lose her identity or lose her freedom. No, I think that the only thing left to do for her now is to keep her here and teach her to fight.”
“She’s not ready for that yet,” Sheena disagreed. “I thought that we agreed that I would teach her fighting skills and how to use weapons when she was sixteen. She couldn’t even hold a bow and arrow right at this age.”
“She is remarkable, just like you were at that age.” Grandmother smiled. “She will do wonderfully if you just give her the chance. You protect her too much. It is time for her to learn how to protect herself.”
“I am ready,” I blurted out. Grandmother and Sheena stopped talking.
“How long have you been listening to us?” Sheena scolded and motioned for me to come out of the caravan.
“I heard you talking and I woke up. I would rather be taught to fight than sent away,” I said. “I don’t know what is going on, but I know I don’t want to leave my friends. You don’t have to tell me what is going on, but I don’t want to go away. But I do want to know what necklace I have that is so important.”
“It’s complicated,” Grandmother explained. “But I think that we have no choice but to tell you about it now.”
Sheena disappeared into the caravan and emerged a moment later with the lion necklace in her hand. She held it out to me and I took it. Grandmother told me the story of how she found me and why the necklace was so important.
“Joby,” Grandmother warned me, “Do not wear that necklace anywhere where it can be seen in plain sight. Always remember to keep it hidden well. We will not send you away, but you must always have that necklace on you, and hidden well. We will make you a secret pocket.”
“In my boot!” I almost screamed.
“What?” Sheena asked, confused.
“Look at my boot,” I explained. “Do you see how the leather folds over at this part on the top? I can easily pull up the fold where we could sew in an extra patch of leather with a button so the pocket stays closed. Nobody would think to look there. If we had a secret pocket anywhere else, somebody might think to check for one.”
“I told you she was smart,” Grandmother beamed. “We will work on it right away, this minute.”
Grandmother and Sheena got to work, fitting my boot with the little hidden pocket. When they had finished the last touches I slipped the lion necklace into it and closed it up. We all pulled and prodded on the pocket to make sure that the necklace was safe and that there were no adjustments needed. Then I put the boot on and folded the leather back down over my new secret stash to make sure that there wouldn’t be a noticeable bulge underneath. It was perfect.
“Now you need to sleep for the rest of the night,” Sheena said as she hurried me into my bed. “Take those boots off and put them beside your bed, within arm’s reach.” I did as Sheena told me and fell asleep within seconds. I wouldn’t get to sleep for long.
I was awoken by the sound of horses whinnying and men yelling out orders. Sheena came rushing into the caravan.
“Put on your boots now, Joby,” she rushed, “don’t take them off until these men are gone. Do not say anything to anyone about the necklace.”
She did not have to tell me any of this. I already knew. I knew that the necklace held some kind of significance to these men, or at least, one of them in particular.
“Out into the clearing, NOW!” One of the soldiers came bursting into our caravan. “Line up with the others.”
Sheena and I did as we were told. I stood close to Sheena and held her hand, knowing that I would never again care that I was adopted by her. She was the one I needed to be near when I was this scared. I always knew that she would give her life to protect me. River lined up next to me, and grabbed my other hand.
“All girls, around age eight, come forward.” This was the voice of the King of the North. He dismounted his horse to look us up and down as seven girls, including myself, came forward. I looked back at Sheena for reassurance. Her face looked slightly alarmed but she gave me a nod to let me know that everything was going to be all right.
The king walked up and down the line, eyeing each of us intently. As he came to each girl, he bent down and handed her a piece of candy.
“You have such pretty blond hair,” he said soothingly to the first one, “go back to your mother.”
He did this with four of the girls. He would bend down, hand her a piece of candy, and complement one of her features. Then he would tell her to go to her mother. Somehow I knew that he just wanted the three of us that were left to feel comfortable with him, so I put up my guard when he addressed the three of us that had not been sent back.
“I need to talk to you three,” he said bending down and bringing us all closely into him, “I’ve left you for last, because you three are the most special. You have skin like a very lonely woman who is trying to find her daughter.” I looked down at my brown skin and back at Sheena.
“Her daughter would be around eight-years-old now,” he continued, “the same age as you three girls. I need to find her daughter and bring her back to her mother. She told me that her daughter would be with a tribe, because that is who she left her with. She gave the girl a necklace before she left her.” He reached into his pocket and pulled a ring with a lion identical to the one I had hidden in my boot.
“Do any of you girls recognize this symbol?” We all shook our heads no and I tried extra hard to wipe any trace of recognition from my face.
The king looked annoyed and enraged for a moment. Then he composed himself and put on his gentle act again.
“Where is your mother?” He asked the first girl. She pointed her out to him and he asked the second girl who pointed to her mother. Then he asked me. I pointed to Sheena. He looked hard at Sheena and then again at me. He gave the other two girls candy and sent them back to their mothers, but he held on to me.
He motioned for Sheena to come over to him. As he spoke to her, he began handing me little candies, one after the other. I took them and ate them, although I felt that this probably wasn’t a good sign.
“Where is this child’s father?” He asked her very forcefully. “I see father’s with the other children, but there is no father for her.”
“He died when I was four.” I lied quickly when I saw Sheena struggling with her words. “Mommy still can’t talk about it.” Almost on cue, Sheena bowed her head in an excellent display of fake grief.
“I’m sorry,” the king softened, “you both just look so much like someone that I know. It just seems like too much of a coincidence.” He reached out his hand towards Sheena’s face and traced the unique scar that she had on her chin before seemingly decided that we weren’t what he was looking for. He began to walk to his horse, but stopped before mounting it.
“Still,” he said, his mind obviously troubled, “it wouldn’t hurt to be sure. Show my men to your caravan. I’m sorry but I think it should be searched just in case.”
“And search the girl and her mother,” he ordered his men as they began to follow us. “Make sure you check everything. That girl is probably the most likely candidate that we have come upon so far.”
Sheena and I spent the next couple of hours pulling everything out of our caravan for the men to search. They came in and out of it many times, looked in every crevice, pulled up boards, shook out blankets and clothing, and checked in every pocket. Then they searched us. They checked our clothing inside and out, they made me pull off my boots, and they checked inside. They did the same for Sheena. They never pulled up the leather to reveal my little pocket. Then as quickly as they had come, they were gone. I watched them ride away into the forest, and couldn’t help but notice the king looking back, glaring at me suspiciously until we could no longer see each other.
“We should finish the clearing,” Grandmother addressed the tribe when they were out of earshot. “We should be safe from them now that they’ve already searched us and know that we don’t have what they want.” She looked at me and winked, and I smiled at her. It was a fake smile, because even at eight-years-old I knew that it was far from over. I could tell by the look in the king’s eyes as he was riding away.
I slept that night in a constant fit of nightmares, all about being taken away and never returning to the forest. I do not remember much about them, except for a growing sense of desperation that never seemed to subside. I always tried to get back to the forest, but the chain from the necklace was holding me back, and the lion was standing guard in case I somehow escaped those chains. His green jewel of an eye was glittering and glowering at me in hatred.
“Wake up,” Sheena was shaking me as the lion was getting ready to pounce, “we have training to do today.”
“Training?” I asked groggily. “What sort of training?”
“Every kind of training that you could possibly think of.” Sheena sighed. “I was going to wait, but after last night I am not going to chance leaving you defenseless.”
“I was going to gather some stuff for the tribe with River today,” I protested. “Grandmother said that all the children had to help gathering firewood and the little stuff so the adults can finish the clearing.”
“Grandmother has made an exception,” Sheena snapped. “And from now on, you will not be doing chores with the children. You will be learning how to do things with the adults. You know as much and more than many of the adults in this tribe, and so now you must learn how to act like an adult. I wouldn’t have wished this for you, but you will have very little time to be young anymore. It’s just the way things are.”
I got up out of bed and got dressed. I carefully put on my boots and lifted up the leather flap to check that my secret pocket was still intact and that the necklace was safe inside. Then I went into the clearing where the tribe was preparing and eating breakfast.
The adults looked at me with pity in their eyes. They knew that today was the day I would be forced to grow up. The tribe always wanted the children to be able to stay young until they were at least age twelve, but my current circumstances would not allow me that luxury. I didn’t care because I was excited about my new role in the tribe. I would soon learn that it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be when the children’s chores were done and they ran off into the forests to play, and I would still be stuck beside Sheena and the others, learning new skills and working until dark to finish everything that needed to be done. The only perk was that I was allowed to choose my own bedtime when the other children my age were forced to go to sleep.
River seemed to notice that I was unhappy and lonely. Even though I was constantly surrounded by other adults that were sharing the same chores that I was involved in, and Sheena was training me every second that I didn’t have something that needed to be done, I didn’t have anyone that I could actually talk to. The age difference between the adults and me was painfully obvious as they spoke of things that I had absolutely no interest in, so River asked the tribe if he could grow up as well. The request was met at first with opposition, but as the days went by and the adults saw how unhappy I was, they caved.
The way it is in a tribe is that fathers usually train their sons, and mothers usually train their daughters in hunting and fighting skills. River asked for special permission to be trained by Sheena. Even though this was an outrageous request by anyone’s standards, the tribe gave in to this as well because they felt I needed as much support as possible, and River seemed to be exactly the push I needed in the right direction. So River and I spent most of our waking moments together, and it began to circulate around the tribe that we would probably end up married one day.
Sheena would train River and me against each other in hand-to-hand combat. River seemed to be better than me at that. He also picked up foraging skills faster. I was better at everything else. I could throw a knife at a target and string and shoot a bow better. My hunting skills were always two steps ahead of his, and my tracking was close to Sheena’s abilities before we had been training for a month.
River wasn’t bad at training; I was just always one step ahead of him. He seemed to get more and more irritated with me as I would try to explain something to him that I was better at. Soon I realized that I was bruising his ego, so instead of trying to help him out I began to tease him about it. That seemed to minimalize our fights. He always took being made fun of lightly, but he couldn’t stomach someone who he thought was the same as him trying to teach him something that they learned at the same time.
So River and I grew into adults together. In the morning and early afternoons we did chores with the adults. In the late afternoons and early evenings we trained hard with Sheena. In the night we sat around the fire with the others, trying to stay awake and take advantage of the one thing that we had over the other kids our ages: our free will over bedtime. Most of the time we only made it ten minutes, but that was the good thing about doing it together. Those ten minutes each night were our happiest in the day. Perhaps that is why the adults loved them so much.