Natir Whitebridge: A Grain of Respect

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Chapter 27

Someone I’ve Never Met Before

Holding a tong in his hands, Volk worked in his shop early in the morning.

The red-hot metal piece kept slipping back into the fire, so he tried to catch it from a higher angle but the fire licked his skin, causing him to shriek and drop his tool.

He waved his burnt hand in the air and shouted with frustration, “Natir? Natir, where’s my long tongs? Where did you put it?”

Wearing extra clothes, Natir entered the room with no hurry, a cold expression on her face.

“Can you hurry up? The steel is overheated. Where is it?”

She exasperated and went to pick the tongs from a shelve and handed it over to him without saying anything.

“For the last time, stop misplacing my tools.”

She rested her back against a table and replied dryly, “It was on the floor.”

He said, hammering the steel, “I put it...there...and I like...to find my tools...exactly where I left them.”

“It was on the floor, Aina could have stepped on it and hurt herself.”

“I said...I put it there.”

Natir tilted her head back, not feeling like arguing any longer.

Ever since the incident with Tarania, Natir’s relationship with volk detorated. It got worse over time to the point that they were merely tolerating one another, as they were forced to live under the same roof.

Volk momentarily glanced at her from over his shoulder then turned his attention back to the work at hand. Natir was acting weird this morning.

“What, you’re not helping today?” He asked, “You feel sick or something?”

“The first snow has fallen.”

“So?”

“I want to make an offering for Morana.”

“No. Maybe next year.”

“I want to make an offering for Morana.”

“I’m not offering a bone shard...to that grumpy...old hag...all right? The gods know we may not have enough to make it through winter.”

Natir raised her voice, “She has my son.”

Volk exasperated. He dipped the steel in the cooling oil and walked to her, wiping his hands.

“All right,” he said. “Go, do what you have to do, but keep it simple.”

“And for my son?”

Volk turned away and shook his head with impatience. “Fine, whatever! Just keep in mind that we need to eat, too. And don’t wander off too far.”

* * *

Natir dressed Aina heavily and took her behind Volk’s workshop through an open yard.

It was cold, and a soft layer of mist had settled over the snow-covered field, but they only needed to walk a short distance before finding a place that was perfect for what they intended.

It was a peaceful spot with virgin snow, right next to the stream that runs through the village.

She heard a voice and searched the distance with her eyes, and through the mist she saw the shadow of another woman who was doing the same. The woman had already started her fire and began singing; Natir watched her with a smile for a little while before starting to prepare her own offering.

They made a basic gaping pit in the ground surrounded by river rocks for an altar then they set the wood and oil for the bonfire and hung a palm-size straw effigy of the goddess, which Natir had prepared earlier.

Aina decided to help. She ran around the place picking little sticks to add to the fire they had started.

They knelt before the altar, placed their offering of fat and animals’ guts into the flames and asked the goddess to accept it.

When the smoke carried their offering —for that Morana was a sky goddess— Natir sang her prayers with Aina alongside her singing the parts she could recall and fall into nervous silence when the song reached a part she didn’t remember.

Near the end of the ritual, Natir added a fish to the offering and asked Morana to give it to her son.

Aina asked, “Will my brother get the gift, Momma?”

She pat Aina’s head. “Of course he will, sweety. And Morana will tell him it’s from you, and it will make him very happy.”

Volk said, standing a short distance behind them, “If the old hag didn’t keep it for herself.”

Natir tilted her head back with disbelief.

He said again, “She can never be trusted, you know.”

“Do you mind to please watch what you say when others are praying?” Natir minded the fire, muttering, “No wonder the gods won’t bless a thing under your roof.”

He shrugged. “I see that she blessed you plenty on that winter. Yes, you must have so much to be thankful for, with my poor stash of food.”

Provoked, she got up and turned to him. “What do you want?”

“We’re going back to Alfred’s place tonight,” he said and headed back to the house. “Maybe we’ll hide enough bones in our sleeves to make up for what we’ve just lost.”

Natir exasperated and watched his back with a frown until he disappeared into the house. She forced herself to smile and turned to Aina.

“Let’s return Morana to the water now. What do you think, should we do it together?”

“Yes!” Aina leapt with excitement.

They took the effigy to the stream and, hand-in-hand, they put it in the water and watched the stream slowly carry it away until it drowned.

* * *

When they returned, Natir took Aina to the second floor and told her to stay warm.

Aina asked, “Can I go to Uncle Alfred’s home now?”

“Not today, sweety, not today. The snow is still fresh, and I don’t want you to slip on your way there.”

“When will the snow stop being fresh?”

“The snow will...um... Look, I’ll take you there tomorrow, okay?”

“But I’m hungry.”

“Patience, sweety. Momma will cook something for you very soon.”

“What is patience?”

“Patience?” Natir brought this on herself. She had to improvise. “Patience is, um, well, it’s when someone behaves good and waits for others to finish. You understand?”

Aina shook her head with denial.

“Okay, look—”

Natir lay down on the mattress next to Aina, fixed the sheets over her daughter and spoke softly with her hand feeling Aina’s head with motherly care.

“Bad girls get angry very quickly,” she explained. “They cry and shout and fight because they want everything immediately and never think of others who might have some important things they must do first. That’s why no one likes bad girls, because they don’t have patience. But a good girl has plenty of patience, she knows that others might be busy and that their work is important. So, she waits until they can give her what she want, and everyone loves her and care about her because when she’s patient, she shows that she cares about them, too. Do you understand now?”

“Yes.”

“Love you.” She kissed her head. “You are my heart, Aina. Now, you wait here where it’s warm and be patient like a good girl until Momma is done with the cooking, okay?”

Natir put an extra sheet over Aina, closed the gate, and climbed down the ladder.

She let out a great breath, wiped her face with her palms, then barged to where Volk was working.

“What was that about?” Natir fumed.

“What?”

“You could see that we were in the middle of an offering. Even slaves are allowed that much.”

“As if you’re acting like one.”

“Well, it’s hard to do that when the master is you.”

“Momma.”

Volk mocked, “That hurt my feelings.”

“What is your problem?”

He threw the tool he had with frustration, “I’m the one who just lost a good fish to a no-good offering for the bonniest, least-giving goddess in the world, and you still complain?”

“Is that what this is about, a fish and a handful of useless pig gut?”

“Momma.”

Volk yelled, “I’ll tell you what this is about: IT’S YOU!”

“Me?”

“Do you even realize how you’re acting? I swear, if Alfred is good at anything then it’s making slaves rebel! Lose their minds! It’s insane!”

“What does Alfred have to do with this?”

“Mommaaaaa!”

They looked up at Aina.

“Patience.”

Natir’s jaw dropped. She had the oh, you did not just say that to me look on her face.

“Aina, go back to bed.” Natir said.

“You’re fighting.”

“No, no, we’re not fighting. I was just speaking loudly so that he can hear me. Go back to bed, sweety. Everything is all right. Back to bed.”

Natir blew a breath. She turned back to Volk. “Look, Volk, if you can just tell me what’s wrong.”

“What’s wrong is that I’m sick and tired of your behavior, I’m tired of you treating my property like it’s worth nothing and of your lack of respect—”

“When did I ever—”

“Now, forget the fact that I’m your master, forget about all the trouble you’re causing me, and that I’m the one dressing you and your child, sheltering you, and putting food in your bellies. Let us pretend that none of that is happening because you obviously have no appreciation for it whatsoever—”

“I do! I do, and I am grateful—”

“And just remind yourself instead that this is still MY HOUSE. All right? I am the man of this house. Respect that, at the very least. Or do women only respect those who whip and abuse them? Because believe me, I too can do that and much worse. Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth, you ungrateful woman? I will have the RESPECT I deserve under my own roof.”

“And I said I do. I do have great respect for what you’re doing for us.”

“Then show it!”

“I am showing it!”

“Do you really? Because so far you’ve done nothing but abuse my kindness.”

Natir yelled out of her mind, “I was only making an OFFERING! An offering for my late son’s sake. You approved it. What does that got to do with respect?”

“If you miss your son so badly—”

Natir jolted as Volk suddenly put his hand between her legs. She glanced down at his hand then back at his face with shock.

“Then how about I give you another one? Hm?” he intoned meanly. “Not only will it solve your problem and save us another fish next year, but you’ll also have your chance to use those disrespectful lips of yours to show the great respect you say you have for me instead.”

Natir stood still with a heaving chest and fiery eyes shooting daggers back at him throughout his speech, and suddenly she snatched his chisel from the table and put it against his throat like a knife.

“I will die before I let a creep like you touch me,” she raged and pushed him backwards until she had him cornered back against a wall.

“Wait, wait—”

“If you ever lay your filthy hand on me ever again, if you even dream it, I swear on Morana’s heart I will slit your throat in your sleep—”

“Natir—”

“I will gouge your eyes out and fill it with sawdust you disgusting old—”

She froze midsentence and her face turned pale in an instant when her eyes fell on her reflection on a polished sheet of metal hanging on the wall.

“What?” Volk asked.

Natir dropped the tool and stumbled backwards with shock; her reaction was making Volk more anxious with every passing moment as he kept turning his face between Natir and the wall.

“What? What is it?”

She covered her mouth and took off running.

“Natir? Natir, what happened?”

Natir ran as fast as her legs could carry her and did not stop until she was out of breath in the open, snow-covered fields.

She sat with her back against a tree, panting with shock and exhaustion.

She couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t real. What she had done was something out of her dreams, and that face full of rage and hatred which she saw on that polished metal piece could not have possibly been hers.

It must have been someone else, no, it must have been something else, a demonic spirit that possessed her and made her do what she did.

What Tarania and Volk had told her was true. Natir was no longer the person she was when she arrived at this place. She had changed so much she could not recognize her own self, and she was the last person to realize it.

She hugged herself and trembled.

The things she had been through had caused a fracture in her heart, and it leaked with such hatred which, once it got hold of her, made her lose control of herself.

And it scared her to the bone.

* * *

After Natir had had the time to calm down and returned to Volk’s place, she found him humming a lot of gibberish and burning incense all over the place.

She raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”

He turned to her. “Appeasing the spirit.”

“What spirit?”

“The one you’ve seen.”

A chuckle escaped her.

Natir looked away and had a hard time trying not to laugh. Volk was all but making a joke out of himself again.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She leaned against a wall. “Yes. Yes, you’re right, I did see something. But it wasn’t a spirit.”

“No? What was it, then?”

“I’m not sure… Someone I’ve never met before.”

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