The neighbors said that Bale hadn’t always been a drinker, at least not until the Kurasiti came to the city. But come they did when she was only four years old, and her father had found his way to drink ever since. All the older folks said nothing in the whole city had been the same after that, but Jire didn’t know any different. What she did know was that she needed money for food tonight, and her drunkard father wasn’t going to get it for her.
Gray dawn light spilled over the mountains to the east, casting a beam narrow as a blade of grass across her still-closed eyes. Her thoughts stole away from a dream she’d had for the last three nights now, always running from hands she couldn’t see without knowing why she ran and only knowing that she had to escape them. The details hadn’t changed since the first occurrence; only the dread had increased. She shook her head as she sat up, clearing away the last remnants of her terror and swinging around a cloud of charcoal-black hair. It settled in front of her eyes as around a high peak.
Her corner of the little shack she shared with her father was as she left it. Across from her, Bale still slept clutching a glass bottle of some dark liquid, the contents of which barely overpowered the stench of urine coming off his ragged clothes. She hated him. As much as she couldn’t put in words the fear she’d felt in that dream, running from hands that she was sure would choke the life out of her, she hated her father but couldn’t say why.
There he sat, propped up against the back wall near the extinguished fire of the stove, his broad nose of broken veins and rotting teeth lost in the same mass of dark curls he’d given to her. Jire had thought long ago that she only worked to feed him because he’d worked to give her life, but she doubted that he’d worked a single day in his life after that, and so she hated him.
Knots in her legs and arms threatened to keep her in bed, but she didn’t let them. If she didn’t get to the river soon, then she’d be stuck waiting there with her water sack until the sun was nearly overhead. That would mean she’d be late getting back home, and even later arriving at Master Morres’ manor in the center of the city. The last time that had happened, Master Morres had done what he could to make sure it never happened again.
Shooting one final glare at her father, Jire rose from her bed, smoothed the only shirt she owned with her hands, and grabbed the water sack hanging off its nail near the stove. It would be a long walk to the river.
At this early hour, the slums of Wajukəra—the Kurasiti called it Lunumbau, whatever that meant—only saw dogs and women awake. Women like Jire, whose errands would take them to the river for water, the market for trinkets, and the manors of fat, old men like Master Morres for… She couldn’t bring herself to think of it anymore. Only today’s water mattered.
Little thrown-together huts like the one she shared with her father lined both sides of the dirt road, now dried after the rain two nights before. What would become a crowded, sweaty din a few hours later was still dully lit silence, pierced occasionally by the crowing of roosters and the shuffling feet of others bound for the riverbank like herself. Jire cast her eyes around, looking for familiar faces. She caught sight of Hinera, who gave her a closed-lipped smile back; the other girl had never been one to talk much. Laene, on the other hand, would gladly gossip and inquire until the both of you starved, and she was the very next person Jire saw.
It was like this most mornings. Laene shuffled up to join her, bearing two water sacks and a smile she shouldn’t have borne considering her circumstances.
“Ji!” she said, matching Jire’s pace with her longer legs. “Did you hear the news?” With Laene, there was just so much news that Jire could never have heard it all.
“What is it?”
“Guranu came back from the gambling pit last night, more drunk than Teni had ever seen him before. He bet their whole brood of roosters on the cards and lost! Can you believe that?” Jire could believe it. This was the same Guranu who more than once had spent Teni’s meager income from weaving on what he thought was a prize rooster, only to have it die in the pit the very next evening. The same Guranu who only sought a day’s wage as a digger for the big Kurasiti church so he could waste it all that night in the same drinking houses as Jire’s father. Hearing news of his latest misfortune only made Jire hurry her steps, away from this muddy little street and toward the river.
But she also counted Laene as a friend, if a loud one, so she decided to play nice.
“No, I can’t,” she replied, hoping that her tone would temper Laene’s enthusiasm. It didn’t.
“Honestly, I don’t know why she puts up with him. If he was my husband, I would’ve left him years ago.” Jire didn’t know Laene’s husband. Some said he was upriver, cutting lumber for masts on the big Kurasiti ships Jire had seen half-built down at the docks. If so, he could be anywhere between here and the southern mountains, maybe even dead by now. The Kurasiti wouldn’t tell her if he was.
Maybe Laene knew it too, but she certainly didn’t show it.
But she did fall silent for a moment, letting the din of chickens back in. A child cried in a hut Jire had passed everyday but never thought to visit. When its mother’s head popped up in the street-side window, it wasn’t a face Jire recognized. Probably one of the runaways, she thought.
There had been plenty of new faces here in the last few years, most speaking in an eastern accent. Of course she’d heard the rumors, same as everyone else—entire forests cleared away in not one moon’s time, all planted full of strange grains—but didn’t have any reason to believe them. She’d never left Wajukəra and never meant to. Yesterday was gone, tomorrow was beyond her control, and today she needed water.
Only today’s water mattered, and it was still a long walk to the river. Laene called out to someone else and then another along the way. The closer they got to their destination, the more women joined them. Some were not even women, but girls half Jire’s age who she never talked to. Then again, she hardly talked to anyone. She had no time to do much else than what she did everyday, and so she didn’t.
The gray haze that had greeted her this morning had begun to give way to gentle golden light, a sign of the approaching sunrise over the mountains. It must’ve been beautiful to watch, but her back was always to it until her water sack was full and the time came to trudge back home. By then, the brilliant sun would shine straight into her eyes. One day she would be strong enough to hold the water sack in one hand and shield her face with the other. Not today.
It wasn’t the morning sun bearing down on her that threatened to slow her steps, that must be deliberate and steady if she was to find the money for food tonight, but what waited for her beyond them.
She had considered going to Wiyana for a curse on that beast Master Morres, though her little hut was so far to the south that the stilt-houses and cluttered shacks of the riverside gave way to reeds long before Jire would come upon it. But the distance wasn’t the problem; she walked far everyday, from her house to the river and back, across the ferry to the Kurasiti part of the city, the East Market, and home again before sunset. The problem was that curses were expensive. Even giving warts to an unfaithful spouse required at least a pair of live roosters, and the cost for a curse that could kill was much higher. Of course, if she could afford even one live rooster, at least one of her problems would go away. That and choosing between her master and her father gave her enough pause to always put it off until the next day and the next day, until the thought only settled into a dull ache in the back of her mind, like a faint hunger or toothache that could be made to wait.
If she waited long enough, one or both may simply die of their own accord. While not as satisfying, Jire reasoned that it would be cheaper. She would have to be content when it finally came.
Looking behind her, the crowd of women had now swelled, like the little streams did as they too followed their paths to the river. Laene had fallen behind in conversation with someone else: Hiren, from the sound of her voice. A sailor’s wife and hopeful Kurasiti mistress, if the gossip was to be believed. It made sense that Laene would go to her for news from the city.
Jire herself knew more than many supposed. Not that she spoke the strangers’ language, at least more than the few words that had made their way into everyday speech here, but that she observed. The telling look that passed between a soldier and his paramour, the subtle weight of Kurasiti gold at a merchantman’s hip… Messages carried in faces and arms and eyes, louder than words and clearer than if they’d been in her own tongue. It had kept her safe more times than she could count, yet only once had she missed the obvious signs until it was too late, and once had been enough.
She was not at the front of the group when they came within sight of the river; there were always some women who arrived first, rising when the sky still showed stars. Even so, the shore was broad enough for all comers. Years and feet had cleared away the reeds along this eastern side, and the commotion of the ferry lay farther south.
Across the river from them, though, the scene was much different. The Kurasiti had constructed three giant docks, larger than anything that the older folks had seen in the city before. Even the great King Gariwa hadn’t built anything that big, nor were his ships as large as the grand ones Jire saw here on the river every morning. These were meant to cross the ocean, she’d heard, bearing men and goods from the Kurasiti’s distant homeland in return for the same from this place. At the southernmost dock stood a skeleton ship larger than any at the other two. Its mast-less deck told her that Laene’s husband had not yet returned.
Little figures crawled across it like ants on a dead bird, some in the vibrant colors worn by Kurasiti soldiers but most were shirtless men darker than Jire. Occasionally, one of the men on the ships tried to call out to the women on the shore, but only a still day with favorable wind allowed their voices to carry that far. Today was not one of those days.
The thought came to her that her father shouldn’t be sleeping off yesterday’s drinking when there was so much work to be done. But which was worse: helping the Kurasiti, or leaving Bale to his vices? She could take care of herself; she’d done it long enough in the days since her mother had left.
A small space opened in the crowd at the shore, but it was large enough for Jire. She swooped in and took it before someone else noticed that she’d been lost in thought and filled it first. Her water bag was an old goat’s stomach that tied at the mouth and had two straps on the back. They were thin and cut into her so much that she was sure her shirt had blood on it. One day, she would have to find some extra cloth or leaves to make them wider and more comfortable.
The long walk to the river always ended so quickly, as she only needed a moment to fill the bag with enough water to last her through the night. Others needed more, and so carried two sacks or even three, while others still brought their older children to help them. Had Jire lived with anyone else in addition to her father, she would’ve needed to do the same, or perhaps make several trips to the river each morning. As it was, she was done here. The journey back would be quieter now, since so many of the other women remained behind to fill their several bags, gossip, and hope that the wind would carry their voices across the river to husbands and lovers at the docks.But not Jire. Only today’s water mattered. She hunched under the burden of its weight on her shoulders and turned toward home again, the rising sun striking her, a second river of blinding light.