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From birth, we are taught the harsh rules that govern our world. We learn that there are many ways to break them and many ways to pay the price. Death, as unpleasant as it sounds, is often the cost and too many forget that a single mistake, no matter how small, could cost them their life. I was six when I learned that lesson, when I saw my parents killed right before my eyes. The only thing they’d been guilty of was demanding more rights but as the Elders saw it, their demands had been a threat to the whole tribe. Thereafter, my older brother chose to disaffiliate himself from the tribe, thus turning me into an outcast as well. Being only a child at the time, I didn’t quite understand why the other villagers looked at me with scorn. When I walked by they would turn their heads and murmur to one another. With my brother constantly away, I grew up alone and none of them once offered any help or solace. I kept my parents hut clean and tidy and hunted small game to eat; mostly ferret, rabbit, and the occasional turkey when I had enough luck. One time, I was able to catch one that nearly overweighed me. The village Elders decided that I was not worthy to have it and so they confiscated the meat and ate it themselves. Maybe that was when I first began to hate them. After all, what kind of people did that to a child?
The children weren’t any better. There was a popular game they played where they hit a ball in the air and everyone tried to keep it from touching the ground. I usually watched from the sidelines, crouched down with my arms around my knees and a foolish, hopeful grin on my face. The one time I was brave enough to approach them and ask if I could play the oldest laughed in my face and pushed me down on the ground.
“Why would we want to let you play? You’re a little nobody with ugly hair and stupid eyes. Get out of here you freak! Get! Scram!”
I ran with tears that made me blind and a pain in my heart that made me sob. I could hear them laughing and yelling awful things and all I could do was run. I nearly tripped in my haste but all I could think of was getting far enough away. That night, I took my father’s knife and hacked away at my hair until it was a messy black tangle on my head. It gave me little satisfaction to see it stand in tufts that made me look boyish and young. I could do nothing about my eyes. They were a bright blue compared to the brown and black of the other villagers. I stared into the makeshift mirror that night and finally saw myself. Even with most of the hair gone, the girl staring back had been strong.
The day I turned sixteen, a band of six men passed through the village. They asked for food and water but the village Elders refused to aid them. I stepped out of the forest, just back from hunting, and found them arguing. They seemed to be debating whether or not to take what they needed by force. I was sure they could have done just that, judging by their size and brawn. Had I felt any bond with my village, perhaps I would have intervened and begged them not to, however, as that was not the case, I did nothing to persuade them.
“There are children in that village and women. Their men will attack and a fight will ensue. I rather not have a dead child on my conscience.” one said.
“But we have many days yet to travel. How will we make it back if we die of thirst or hunger?” another disagreed.
I felt strange, spying on them, but I had spotted the wagons in which they traveled and saw it as a way out. The forest was too vast for me to travel on foot and this way, I had a free ride away from the village that had spurned me all my life. I took a chance and hid in a wagon with nothing but the clothes on my back. I had a hard time getting in without them spotting me but soon, we were on the road. I had no sense of day or night and I found it difficult to stay calm. If I were found, what price would I pay? Death surely, but what else? A woman would find more than death at the hands of five ruffians. I thought more and more about the consequences and soon, I was panicked enough to risk a peek outside. The wagon had come to a halt maybe fifteen minutes earlier and so the men should have already built camp and settled down for the night. However, when I stepped outside, I was met by a crowd of hundreds. There were women with hair down to their waists and children with joyful smiles. The men stood tall and serious but their eyes were kind. Silence befell them when I, a girl with hair to my shoulders and filthy clothes that were little more than rags, stepped off the wagon. It was daytime and the sun was a spotlight over my head. I felt exposed but there was nowhere to run. It was a whole five minutes before anyone spoke and when one did, it was a woman. She had a look of wisdom about her as she stepped forward and addressed me,
“My dear, why have you left your home?” she asked.
I had not expected this. In my village, the Elders would have spoken and their words would have been condemning.
“It was not my home to leave.” I answered, still unsure, “I sought a way out and if I am to pay for that, then I will bear it. Staying would have been death itself.”
The woman stared for a moment more and then turned to look at her people. She held up her hands and everyone, even the men, seemed to hold their breath as she spoke.
“We have been given a great opportunity to show the gods that our mercy is fair and our kindness true. We will accept it, and her, with open arms and hope that someday, the same will be done for any of us who finds ourselves in a strange land.”
Then, she turned once more to me. I didn’t know it then, but her next words were the most true I’d ever heard. She took my hand in hers and pulled me into the crowd of villagers.
“Welcome child, to your home.”