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The Season's fruit
Bare toes scrambled over the parched earth. The birds sang feebly as the children rustled the wiry bushes, whistling and calling out triumphantly if they found a treasure. Cradling their pomegranates tightly, the children’s eyes darted back-and-forth, daring anyone to steal the fruit from their breasts. The children scuttled back to the cracked earth that surrounded a spindly tree in the center of a clearing. In a wide circle twenty feet from the tree, the children placed the pomegranates, pressing each of the gleaming fruits to their mouths to kiss it before setting it down delicately in the circle with a ceremonial flourish.
It was nearly noon, and the sun beat down hard upon the villagers’ bare heads, hammering sweat from their pores that soon disappeared into tattered rags. Yes, it was noon, but not a soul glanced toward the huts in the distance as the sun glided by, not even wistfully.
They had long since gotten used to the absence of pungent odors, piquant aromas, spicy wafts that had emanated from the wooden cabins just months before.
The women of the village bustled about the clearing, ferrying jewelry, gems, and valuables from the huts to a smaller circle within the ring of pomegranates. Fleeting smiles would brighten their emaciated faces for an instant as they told each other stories, recited so many times that they were now as familiar as the field itself, but they did not laugh.
Sun glimmered on the women’s lank dark hair and the golden trinkets from each household that were accumulating at their feet in a circle. A child eagerly pointed out the pomegranates that he had discovered to his mother, and the woman squeezed his bony shoulders proudly, looking up toward the heavens to show her thanks and mumbling a silent prayer. Another mother situated the infant on her back more comfortably, stifling tears as the papery skin on her hands cracked under the fiery sun.
Underneath the tree in the center of the clearing, the skeletal figure of Old Woman Anubis gazed out approvingly at the villagers’ flurry. Anubis absentmindedly stroked the half-starved cat in her lap, whispering to it comfortingly. As the women and children passed by Anubis, they paid her their respects by brushing the top of her head lightly with their palms.
Anubis was the oldest woman in the village; no one could remember a time when she had been young. It was said that she had even been one of the founders of the village. She could even remember and tell tales of the Times of Plentiful Rain. The villagers knew that she was now blind, crippled, weary, yet her mind was sharp as any. At their touch, she closed her filmy, clouded eyes and returned a watery smile.
As the sun raced back toward the west, the women squinted at the horizon, but it remained barren. No silhouettes emerged through the blistering haze to relieve them. The men would not be home tonight. The small children reported back to the women, whose faces fell. They had prowled the entire area, but not a single shrub was left laden with pomegranate. No more juicy red fruits to placate the gods, and still, Rain had not come. The cat leaped out of Old Woman Anubis’s lap and slinked over to the women now wringing their hands in despair. As they gazed at the heavens imploringly, the cat wound itself sinuously between their legs. The women paused in their musings and followed the cat with their eyes uneasily, and the children clung to their mothers’ legs. At last, the cat swiveled and sat down facing the villagers, glaring reproachfully. The women took this as a cue and herded the children back toward the huts for a night of fitful sleep, one of them leading Old Woman Anubis gently by the arm.
The villagers were in the field rubbing the sleep out of their eyes before even the sun had awoken and begun to scorch the red dirt. As the women and children set about their tasks, gathering the sparse berries left in the surrounding forest and any other objects of value, a cry went up from the far side of the village.
“They’re home! Home! Here come the men! Here comes the rain!”
“Here comes the rain! Here comes
the rain! Here comes the rain!”
Abandoning their chores, the women raced to the outskirts of the clearing. They waited eagerly as the men trudged across the land toward them, heavily burdened with slaughtered goats, rams, pigs, and other beasts. They beamed at the children who ran out to hug them and set their kill down tiredly in the clearing. The day wore on, and the villagers’ backs grew sore as they tediously carried the bloodied sacrifices to a final inner circle around the tree in the clearing.
In the sweltering heat, Old Woman Anubis rested in the shade of the tree’s canopy. As the children arranged the lifeless animals around her, she trained a reproachful, foggy eye upon them, scowling and scooping up her cat that meowed pitifully. Noon knocked again, but the townspeople did not abandon their efforts.
Their faces set, they redoubled their pains and did not break until the sun was already low in the lucid, cloudless sky and every one of the slain creatures had been carefully gutted and positioned.
Upon completion, they peered up at the sky, willing a storm cloud to approach; surely, their labors would not go unnoticed. Without a doubt, tomorrow would bring Rain.
Yet the next morning, there was no Rain to alleviate their suffering, no storm to relieve their pangs of hunger, to quench their parched throats, to moisten their withered skin. Sun rise, sun set, sun rise, sun set. And still, no Rain. The villagers were desperate, reckless, starved, emaciated. Each morning they raised their arms to the heavens beseechingly, despair swimming in their sunken eyes. On the fourth morning after the carnage and butchery that the men had brought, the elders called a meeting. All of the men and women gathered solemnly at the hut of Old Woman Anubis, leaving the older children to care for the younger ones.
“Nothing is working,” cried Mother Dose to murmurs of consent and agreement. They had nothing left: no crops, no food, no valuables, no animals… nothing. Half an hour passed, but still there was no possible solution. Then, Old Woman Anubis spoke up.
“I have been watching,” she said, and the crowd glanced at her, surprised. “Oh, yes, I can see much better than you have presumed. But that is for another time. I have been watching, and I have noticed that there is a certain child who has not worked. The other children ran their feet raw searching for pomegranates. The women and the men have toiled for days to find any objects worthy of sacrifice. This child is perfectly capable, perfectly able. Yet they have remained silent, scrutinizing our every move and not even offering to help.”
The women exchanged anxious looks. Certainly Anubis was not speaking of their son or their daughter. The heavens must not be angry with their family. One thing, however, was clear. This child must be punished. No child could jeopardize the rest of the village because of their laziness. Father Akt raised his voice to be heard, “This child must be chastised. We will not suffer for a mere boy or girl. Am I right?” The villagers stole furtive glances at each other and then piped up hesitantly with cheers and a smattering of applause.
“Well then, who is it Anubis? Please tell us, and we will mend our name with the gods… and we will have Rain!” Akt’s last words were greeted with rowdy shouts.
Anubis gazed down importantly from her stool where she had been caressing her cat. “Wana Dose. The child is young Wana Dose.”
All eyes in the hut sought out the face of Mother Dose. She had gone pale, her gaunt face stricken with horror. “No. No. Not my daughter. This isn’t fair. I saw her helping out! Didn’t you see her? Didn’t you? Come on, someone must have seen her helping!” She raised her hands in panic as the crowd shifted away from her almost imperceptible, eyeing her nervously.
“Wana will be helping the whole village now. It’s only right. She can appease the gods and bring rain to all of us!” someone cried. Mother Dose whimpered, and the villagers rushed past her out the door to where the children were assembled.
“Wana? Wana Dose?”
A young, slight girl looked up, surprised at the elders racing toward her. She stood up proudly, tossing her hair behind her. They must want her assistance. Anubis’s cat streaked across the clearing to Wana’s feet and wound herself about them, meowing pathetically. Wana shoved the cat aside roughly with her toes and followed the beckoning elders through the rings of fruits, vegetables, valuables, and dead animals to the tree in the center of the field.
Mother Dose viewed the scene from Anubis’s door frame. As she watched her daughter march haughtily to the middle of the clearing, Mother Dose squared her shoulders and raised her chin. Led by Old Woman Anubis, the men lifted their arms to strike the first blows; Mother Dose smiled grimly.
This is what the heavens needed, what they had been waiting for. Tomorrow, she would not have her daughter, but she would have Rain.