So Predictable

Another little short story from the archives. Short, sweet, romantic.

Kerry-Anna cast a practiced eye over the small heap on the conveyor belt. She didn’t need to look at the customer to know that the frozen lasagne for one, the bottle of cheap white wine and the expensive tub of cookie dough ice cream belonged to a thirty-something woman with hair all done up and make-up like the Queen. Kerry-Anna didn’t know where they’d all got this idea that they’d meet their future husbands at the checkout queue but she certainly recognised the desperate type when she saw it. Kerry-Anna wouldn’t want the kind of feller you’d find in Waitrose, anyway. She’d met her Wayne down the Roxy two Fridays ago. He knew how to show a girl a good time and it didn’t involve taking her to the supermarket.

“Thirteen pounds forty-three,” Kerry-Anna read from the screen, watching while the woman struggled to open one of the plastic bags. This one had obviously eaten too many lasagne and icecream dinners, judging by the bulge above her waistband. Her roots needed doing too. She scrabbled around in her handbag and pulled out a tatty-looking purse.

“Sorry, how much did you say?”

Kerry-Anna nodded towards the screen. “Thirteen forty-three,” she repeated slowly and elaborately, rolling her eyes.

“Oh. I… Hold on.”

Kerry-Anna sighed loudly and began to examine her fingernails. Pink with green stars. They were all right but they wouldn’t go with her orange top she wanted to wear on Saturday for Gary and Maeve’s party. They’d had some dead gorgeous yellow ones with orange sunrises on. She’d make an appointment tomorrow and surprise Wayne.

“Here.” Lasagne Lady was holding out a tenner. Kerry-Anna could see she had a pile of change in her other hand. Kerry-Anna pouted. She’d always hated maths. And that Christine who was in charge of the tills made a right fuss if they was out, even if it was only a few pence.

Kerry-Anna dumped the change on the counter. “Eleven… twelve… twelve-fifty…seventy…eighty…ninety…thirteen…twenty…five…thirty…three. You’re ten pence short,” she announced, not without a certain smug satisfaction.

“Oh, right. Um, hold on.” The woman began searching in the bottom of her handbag again.

“Let me.” Kerry-Anna looked up in surprise. The man who was waiting in line was holding out a coin towards the woman and smiling. Kerry-Anna checked. Six pack of Carling. Packet of chocolate digestives. Tin of dog food. Oh, and… Kerry-Anna’s eyebrows rose… a frozen curry. For one.

Lasagne Lady looked startled. Then Kerry-Anna watched her lips twitch into the beginnings of a smile and her cheeks turn the faintest of pink.

“It’s only ten pence,” Curry Guy pointed out, smiling back. Not bad-looking, Kerry-Anna decided, considering him critically. Old bloke, of course. At least forty, she’d say, but still fit if you liked that sort of thing. It looked like he had his own hair and all that.

“Thank you.” The woman held out her hand and he put the coin carefully onto her palm, closing her fingers tightly around it.

“You’re welcome.”

Kerry-Anna tutted loudly, holding out her own hand for the money.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Here you are.” Lasagne Lady turned a darker pink and began to pick up her carrier bag clumsily. Her eyes kept flicking back to where Curry Guy was waiting patiently for her to move out of the way.

“D’you want your receipt?” Kerry-Anna asked, holding it out to her.

“Yes, right. Thanks. And thank you,” she said again to the man.

Kerry-Anna raised her eyebrows. Couldn’t the idiot see what a fool she was making of herself? If she was really interested, why didn’t she just ask the guy out? That’s what Kerry-Anna did when she saw a bloke she fancied. She’d seen Wayne dancing with some other bird and decided she liked the way his hips rolled, so she’d just gone over and cut in. He hadn’t seemed to mind. He’d been snogging her by the end of the first song.

“My pleasure.” The poor bloke was embarrassed now. He was probably worrying that he’d got himself a stalker. She looked like she could be that type.

Kerry-Anna scanned his shopping and swiped his card. “Check the amount and put your number in.”

“There you go.”

“Your card and your receipt.”

He pushed them into his back pocket and lifted his bag. That woman was still hanging around. God, look at them both waiting for the other one to go first. He didn’t seem to know how to open his mouth and she couldn’t even walk in a straight line without running into a trolley. Unless that was the plan, ’cause he was pushing the trolley out of the way now and asking if she was okay.

Kerry-Anna had her mobile phone out and was texting Wayne. “Where r u?”

She watched the stupid woman nodding and saying she was fine. Then the guy put his hand on her elbow and turned away slightly so that Kerry-Anna couldn’t see what he was saying now.

“Wnt 2 come ovr 2nite?” she wrote.

The woman was laughing. They’d stopped right in the middle of the aisle so all the other customers were having to walk round them to get out.

“Letz gt drunk & gt laid. U up 4 it?”

She noticed the man shifting his shopping into his other hand. The woman paused, then did the same.

Wayne never held Kerry-Anna’s hand. He said that kind of thing was soft. Kerry-Anna looked at the couple, smiling nervously at each other and supposed that one day, when she was old like them, she might enjoy it too.

Another customer started unloading her basket. Kerry-Anna quickly pressed Send, then looked to see what was coming. A small bottle of Baileys, a bag of salad and a Chicken Kiev. So predictable.

Couples’ Paradise

Another short story from the archives. This one is romance, though the ending is more HFN than HEA.

Paradise. That’s what the brochures had all said – the small island off the coast of Thailand was a couples’ paradise. The perfect place to rekindle the spark of romance in any relationship. Honeymooners still overwhelmed with the first flush of passion wandered hand in hand along the bright white beaches, eyes fixed on each other so that they hardly saw anything of the amazing landscape. Established couples came for an escape from everyday life. In the tranquil beauty of the tropical island, they had time and space to fall in love all over again.

It ought to have been idyllic.

To Hilary Maitland it felt like hell.

She should never have let Peter talk her into it. Of course it would have been complicated and expensive to pull out at the last minute but it would have been better than being stuck in a romantic one-bedroomed cabin with a man who made her skin crawl.

It wasn’t just that she’d seen him kissing another woman. It was the way he had dismissed the episode so casually. As if kisses meant nothing to him. Perhaps they never had. It had clearly never meant anything when he’d kissed Hilary. Not what she had taken it to mean, in any case.

But he had smiled at her in just that way she’d never been able to resist and told her not to be such a prude. He’d paid for the holiday, after all, and he wasn’t planning on going to the couples’ paradise alone.

When Hilary suggested he might prefer to take someone else, he’d looked genuinely confused for an instant. Then he laughed and shook his head. Apparently she – Hilary didn’t know her name and she wasn’t completely convinced that Peter did either – was just a random snog and certainly not worthy of a two-week luxury holiday on a tropical island.

It’ll be fun, he promised her. Sun, sea, sand… sex, he added with a leer and a wink.

Hilary allowed herself a small smile of triumph at that. Three days in and Peter was growing increasingly frustrated at her lack of availability. Thanks to some judicious planning with her pill, her period had started on the same day they had arrived. She took care to go to bed early every evening, wearing her least attractive pyjamas and a blindfold over her eyes. Before Peter woke in the mornings, she was out of the cabin for an early morning jog along the beach.

That was her favourite time of the day. Hardly anyone else was around and the air was slightly cooler. It really was a beautiful place. Hilary liked to run round to the next cove, where there were no cabins, just acres of palm trees and clear sand, each morning left in different swirling patterns by the tides. There was space here to think. She could clear her mind in the bright, empty air of the shore.

If only this weren’t a couples’ resort, she was sure Peter would have liked nothing better than to find someone else to hook up with for a holiday romance, and Hilary certainly wouldn’t have cramped his style. But everyone here was already spoken for. It wasn’t that she felt obliged to keep him company, exactly. It was just that everything was set up for people in pairs.

On the first day, Hilary had gone to one of the restaurants for lunch and asked for a table for one. The waiter had given her a strange look, then made a huge fuss about removing half the cutlery and rearranging her seat. Then, of course, everything on the menu was romantically designed for two people sharing, so Hilary ended up with twice as much food as she needed. And although she had her book with her, she couldn’t help but be conscious of all the tables-for-two staring at her in pitying curiosity. When Peter stormed into the restaurant looking for her, she didn’t have the energy to insist he sat somewhere else, though she did get up and leave while he was still painstakingly picking meat out of the claws of a lobster.

Today she was going on the cruise around the bay. There were spectacular coral reefs to be seen and she didn’t much fancy diving. The boat had a glass bottom and special viewing panels, so that the passengers could see through into the sparkling clear waters. The boy had assumed she wanted two places and Hilary hadn’t bothered to correct him. If Peter wanted to come, she wouldn’t stop him.

Hilary wandered back up the beach towards her favourite breakfast stop, catching her breath and carefully avoiding looking at the cabin she shared with Peter. She ordered her customary fruit juice and waffles and settled down to enjoy watching the waves gently rolling in across the sand.

A loud cry from a nearby cabin made her look up in surprise. Something was polluting the perfection of paradise. A few seconds later a loud crash was followed by more shouts and screeches, and then an ominous silence.

Hilary watched in detached amusement. She was rather glad that her row with Peter hadn’t happened quite so publicly as this. Though neither of them were given to throwing each other’s things out of the window or slamming doors in any case.

The man was left out on the verandah, wearing only a pair of low-slung shorts and some flipflops. He made no effort to pick up the rest of the things his partner had thrown out of the window. He simply pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and strolled across to the café where Hilary was eating her breakfast.

Late twenties, she guessed. The kind of body that didn’t come from manual labour, but from hours spent in a gym. Hair that looked like it had gone a shade or two lighter in the sun. A wide mouth that, even after a row with his girlfriend, was curled up into something of a smile.

‘Mind if I join you?’

Hilary blushed and hoped he hadn’t noticed her watching him.

‘Sorry for disturbing your breakfast.’

She gave a pointed look at the other empty tables surrounding them. He followed her gaze for a moment, then laughed.

‘No, I meant that.’ He jerked a thumb back in the direction of his cabin. ‘Trouble in paradise.’

‘Oh. Don’t worry about it.’

‘Did you have a quarrel too?’ he asked conversationally.

‘I’m sorry?’

He gestured around. ‘You’re on your own. In couples’ paradise.’

Hilary rolled her eyes.

‘As bad as that? Oh, dear.’

‘I’d rather not discuss it.’

‘Of course not. Sorry.’ He ordered his breakfast and they settled into a companionable silence.

Twenty minutes later, Hilary was just deciding that she would have to go back to the cabin to change and get ready for the cruise. She stood up and smiled politely at her table companion. ‘Well, have a good day.’

Peter had emerged onto their verandah. Hilary watched for a moment, hoping he might leave before he saw her.

‘Things must be pretty bad between the two of you if you don’t even want to go and say hello.’

She sighed. ‘Yes, things are pretty bad.’

‘Do you still love him?’

Hilary shook her head. ‘No, of course not.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Of course.’

‘Sorry. But no, I don’t love him now. I never did.’

‘You know, any moment now, my ex-girlfriend is going to come out onto our verandah and start doing her yoga exercises.’

‘Oh.’

‘She’s nineteen, blonde and pretty. And she likes to wear tiny little shorts and a bra top. She’s very flexible indeed.’

Hilary shrugged. She was precisely none of those things. He didn’t need to make it any clearer that he wasn’t interested in her.

‘You think your man there might be interested in that kind of view?’

Oh. Oh.

She took a deep breath. ‘Would you, by any chance, be interested in taking a cruise around the bay today? There are some amazing coral reefs. I’ve booked two places.’

He pushed his glasses up, so Hilary could see the smile lurking in his blue eyes. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.’

She put out her hand. ‘Hilary Maitland. Pleased to meet you.’

He took her hand and shook it. ‘Brian Packer.’

Suddenly this couples’ paradise wasn’t looking so bad. There was more than one way of two and two making four, after all.

Qivah

I wrote this several years ago. It’s different from the things I normally write. Not really romance, though sort of, and definitely with a positive ending. More SF/F kind of thing really. It was inspired by some lines from the ancient Akkadian myth of Atrahasis. I don’t read Akkadian, so the translation with which the story begins and ends is not mine (and I have lost the details of whose translation it is, sorry. If anyone knows, I would be glad to have that information.). The story is set somewhere that might be Babylon, though certainly not ancient Babylon.

Enki made ready to speak,
and said to Nintu the birth goddess:
“You, birth goddess, creator of destinies,
establish death for all peoples!

“Now then, let there be a third woman among the people,
among the people are the woman who has borne
and the woman who has not borne.
Let there be also among the people the demon:
let her snatch the baby from the lap who bore it.”

It is near noon in the city and the girl is planting seeds. She shields herself from the worst of the sun’s heat under a makeshift corrugated metal lean-to. The shade will help the seedlings when they sprout, though the girl does not have enough experience to know that yet. She is sitting on the dry earth with her legs folded either side of her as if she is still a child, but her breasts are rounded under her loose linen shift and she is quickly ripening into womanhood. Her name is Qivah. Once, the word signified hope to those who understood. Now, it is as meaningless as any other name in this dead city.

Qivah grips her lip between her teeth in a childish gesture of concentration as she carefully places the precious seeds one by one into the holes she has dug. She reaches for a handful of the sandy soil, letting it trail through her fingers, sifting out the stones as it submerges the seeds.

No one has taught Qivah to do this. Here there are no longer any plants and no people who remember how to cultivate them. Huge wheeled containers bring food into the city to be exchanged for precious jewels and metals finely wrought into complex machines too small to be seen or understood. The seeds come by accident: dark, shiny pips from the core of an apple; flat white motes which cling to the pith of a sliced red pepper; tiny seeds that have to be sieved from tomato sauce and then dried. When the other children spit them to the ground and tread on them until they squeak, Qivah catches hers with her hand and twists them into her handkerchief.

Qivah collects the seeds but she does not know what she must do with them for her city has lost its wisdom. In this place thousands of years earlier, Qivah’s ancestor knows how to dig manure into the earth and make trenches. He teaches his children which seeds must be planted in the shade and which need the direct light of the warm sun. He shows the girls the best way of watering the tender shoots and sets the boys to keep the birds from eating their fruit.

The girl knows none of these things but, inadvertently, her mother has taught her that she must plant the seeds in the soil. When Qivah begins to bleed, Ina-Mai says many things she does not understand and more that she does not even hear. But when she speaks of seeds, the girl turns her head and listens. A man’s seeds must be implanted, Ina-Mai tells her. A fertile woman is the soil that will make a man’s seed grow. The blood that you are making is the earth into which he will put new life.

There is no soil left in the city. It is suffocated by layers of thick concrete which must be softened underfoot with woven rugs. Here, in this secluded spot behind the compound, Qivah has prised up four heavy concrete paving stones to reveal the earth beneath. She makes it her garden. No one sees it and Qivah is safe. Some of the boys who walk past laugh at her dirty hands but they are only boys and Qivah does not need to be afraid of them.

A greater fear is taking hold of the girl. When she is working in her garden, she is able to suppress it for a while but when she is with her sisters or the other girls, it overcomes her. All the girls feel it, more and more as they grow older. The younger girls watch the older women, learning to distinguish the fortunate from the rest. Those that are on the verge of womanhood watch each other, hoping for some sign that will tell them who is safe. They all play the childish games as long as they dare, laughing as they pretend their fates are told by the dice and the stones. The older girls all cheat.

They cheat because they hope a little and fear much. They hope that they will be as lucky as their mothers. Qivah’s mother has been luckier than most. Ina-Mai’s face is round and soft, and in amongst the many wrinkles, there are some caused by laughter. Ina-Mai smiles. Her body, too, is plump. She is well-fed and neatly dressed. There is always someone to run an errand for her or to sit and brush out her dark hair until it shines. Ina-Mai has recently begun her fortieth year, but if anyone were to ask her, she would count her time differently: she would tell them proudly that she is already expecting her seventeenth child.

Not many women in the city are as blessed as Ina-Mai. Yalona, who lives in a compound just across the street from Qivah’s little garden, is not so fortunate. She has never spoken to Qivah, and the young girl does not even know this woman’s name. Yet Yalona knows that the girl who likes to play in the dirt is called Qivah. She knows and is hopeful, though she cannot explain why.

Yalona watches Qivah often. Her gaze is drawn towards the children, feeding the pain of what might have been. She longs for the softness of their skin, the roundness of their flesh to bring comfort to her own thin and empty frame. Yalona’s body is useless. Her face is always sad and her hands hard, for she has no one to help her with her work. There is no man to provide for Yalona, nor child to delight her. Already she is withering, though she is some fifteen years younger than Ina-Mai. Before the curse fell on the city, women lived for a hundred years or more; now most are lucky to see their thirtieth summer. For women like Yalona this is an unacknowledged mercy.

Yalona feels only one comfort: that she does not suffer the same fate as her sister, Wrenn. Wrenn is not barren like Yalona. She is accursed.

Wrenn bore a child once. For one glorious moment, she believed she was safe. She felt the same joy and the same relief as Ina-Mai when her first infant was placed in her arms. Sometimes Wrenn remembers that moment in a dream. When she wakes, she hears the loud, harsh laughter of the demon taunting her again just as he did on the day her child was snatched from her. Before she could latch the infant to her breast and secure the bond; before she could name him and make him her own; before the dizzy heights of euphoria had begun to dissipate; before she could stop him, the demon’s long, cold fingers had stretched out and grasped the child.

In Wrenn’s dreams, she finds a way to hold onto the baby. She spits fire into the glittering purple eyes of the demon. She grasps his wild green hair and twists until he lets go of the child. In the dreams, she is not held back by the exhaustion of birth. Wrenn leaps from her bed and wrestles the demon to the ground until her child is back where he belongs. She cradles him in her arms and defiantly calls him her son.

Dreams are all that Wrenn is now. Dreams and fury. The children see it in her eyes and run to hide from her. She cannot survive much longer. She will be gone before her eighteenth year is out, killed by her own fury.

Many of the girls do not really believe that there is a demon who steals the babies. They recite complicated explanations which their mothers have told them, about prematurity and genetic defects and sudden infant death syndrome. They are wrong. Qivah knows they are wrong, for she has seen the demon, rushing down the road with a tiny child in its skeletal arms and an expression of terrifying triumph in its jewelled eyes.

It is no wonder that this girl is beginning to look at her future with fear. She cannot help it. As her body is changing, so her fate will be determined and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it. So she continues to plant her seeds and press down the soil around them. She reaches for the can with holes punched in its lid and sprinkles water over them. She is imagining how the juicy red tomatoes or shiny green peppers will taste when they are still warm from the sun. Others may be too scared to try the food that has come from the soil, but Qivah is not afraid of the earth. She touches it and she knows it to be kind.

One day, in the spring, Ina-Mai calls for Qivah and tells her it is time. She smiles at her daughter and lays a hand on the girl’s fine, dark head. In an earlier time, mothers prayed a blessing upon their daughters at such a time, but Ina-Mai has never heard of such a prayer.

So now there is nothing Ina-Mai can do for Qivah but smile and touch her hair and tell her where she must go to meet her man. She speaks calmly and both women pretend to be unafraid. The first time, it does not matter, Ina-Mai says. The first time is only to grow accustomed. Very few seeds grow from the first try.

The boy is kind. He is nervous, fumbling at his clothes and Qivah steps forward to help him. Chesed flushes and smiles shyly at her.

‘I hoped it would be you,’ he tells her softly. ‘I have watched you in your garden.’ He lifts one of Qivah’s hands and inspects it closely. ‘There is no trace of the dirt.’ He cannot hide his disappointment.

‘Here.’ Qivah holds out the other hand and points to a broken fingernail.

Chesed smiles widely. ‘May I?’

She nods and watches as Chesed cautiously slips his own nail under hers and flicks out a speck of dirt. He holds it like a jewel in the palm of his hand. He has never touched the earth before. Then he reaches for Qivah’s hand again and presses her palm against his, smearing the soil between them. She gasps at the unexpected intimacy of the gesture. When he bends his head to kiss her, she is already his.

Afterwards, when Qivah must lie still, letting his seed take root in her, Chesed lies beside her. He strokes her hair, and in his unfocussed gaze, she appears to be the most beautiful thing in the world. Qivah closes her eyes and wills this brief hour to be extended.

‘Are you afraid?’ he asks her.

‘Not any more.’

Chesed laughs and reaches up to cup her breast again, enjoying the way she moves back against him. ‘I’m glad. You should never be afraid, Qivah. The gods will be kind to you as the soil has been.’

Something changes in the room. It is as though another person has entered, though the door remains closed. Qivah turns to face Chesed, resting both her hands against his chest. ‘The gods?’ It is as if she has never heard the word before. Chesed wonders if perhaps she has not and he stiffens. Qivah tries to reassure him, putting one hand up to touch his cheek.

‘I thought you must know,’ Chesed says in a tighter voice. ‘You know about the earth.’

She shakes her head. ‘I don’t know anything. I am just guessing.’ Her learning is all by instinct and chance. No one has ever told Qivah that there might be wisdom locked away in the books of the city. It would not have helped her if she had known: the women have long since forgotten how to read.

‘But you feel it?’ he asks her, suddenly urgent. ‘You feel the earth when you are working with your seeds?’ He reaches for her hand but the dirt has been wiped away.

It is a strange question and Qivah frowns as she answers. ‘I think so.’

‘The earth will bless you with its fruit?’

‘I hope it will.’ She places her hands over her stomach.

‘It is the same with the gods,’ Chesed tells her, resting his hand over hers. He has been reading and he knows these things with all the certainty of his youth. ‘Our people pretend they are not there and tell us that we do not need them but the gods have never left this city. They have never stopped wanting to bless us, if only we would ask.’

‘Do you know how to ask?’ A sudden burst of hope fills Qivah’s face.

‘Perhaps. I have found a book – an ancient book, from the time when our ancestors knew the names of the gods. I have begun to translate it but I am slow.’ He is slow, and there are many words he cannot tell. The answer he needs to give Qivah is there, if only he can find it before the fruit ripens.

At the end of their hour, they dress, watching each other with swift, shy glances. Chesed takes Qivah’s hand once more.

‘When I find the name, I will tell you.’

She nods, certain that she will not see Chesed again. Not unless she holds his child in her arms to give to him.

###

Months have passed and some of the seeds have grown. The stems grow taller and the leaves are forming, but there is no fruit yet. The girl is disappointed to see gaps in the rows she counted so carefully. She wonders whether she could have done something differently, but has no way of knowing why they have not all sprouted. Now she is fearful for the growing plants. She checks each day; she knows every leaf, every bud. She brings water; she snaps off leaves that grow brown and brittle; she guards her plants from the strongest heat of the sun. They will bear fruit, the first fruit of the city for many generations.

Yalona sees the plants from across the street and thinks that perhaps this is the first sign that the world is changing again.

Often Qivah simply watches her plants, waiting with one hand on her growing stomach, for the girl has been implanted, too. Qivah is carrying Chesed’s child in her belly, taking care of it as well as she knows how. Ina-Mai tells her which foods she must eat and how many hours she must rest. Qivah follows all the rules but none of them help her to overcome her rising fear. She has nightmares now from which she wakes in a sweat, screaming at visions of the demon snatching the child out of her belly. In her dreams, the demon is always laughing.

Sometimes, Qivah waits by her fence, hoping for a glimpse of Chesed walking home with the other young men. Yalona watches her and for the first time, Qivah envies the barren woman. It is a strange thing that she has come to fear for the child, too. When she was a girl, playing, she was afraid only for herself. She saw Wrenn and feared losing herself. Now Qivah rests her hands on her stomach and makes a promise to the child inside her: she will fight the demon. She will not let her child be stolen by the evil spirit who taunts her waking hours and haunts her dreams.

When Chesed passes her garden, he always turns his head to look for Qivah. If she is there, his mouth will widen into a quick smile and his eyes will drop to measure the growth of her swelling abdomen. Once or twice, he has contrived to slip away from the other boys and snatch a brief moment of conversation with Qivah. He asks if she is well and she asks if he is making progress on the translation. He presses his hand to the child and she prays that he will find the name of the goddess that will keep their baby safe.

Only in those moments does Qivah allow herself to imagine what their future might be. In the city, they will never be permitted to live in the same compound, but with a child between them, they would have regular visits. Qivah wonders if Chesed would tell her more about the ancient gods, the wisdom he is reading. Chesed thinks that he would like to trust Qivah with all his secrets. She would understand him, he is sure.

His ideas are dangerous. Chesed is young and he does not realise just how dangerous his ideas will be. He is young enough still to believe that he can bend the world to fit his ideal. He reads books and fills his head with dreams of the world long gone. He dreams of times when men and women lived under the same roof, sharing their work and sharing a bed. That was the time when people trod the earth, trusting it to sustain them as they cared for it. Those were the days when men knew the names of their gods and were not afraid to speak them. This is the life he wants to build for Qivah and the child.

He knows they will have to leave the city, find a new place. Chesed thinks he could build a home for them. He would help Qivah to dig the earth and plant her seeds. They would keep goats and learn how to milk them. Chesed would teach his child the prayers of the past. His daughter will not fear the fate of the tortured, twisted women that the men in the city taunted and abandoned in their barrenness.

Chesed cannot speak all of this to Qivah. There is only time to hold hands, to exchange hasty, unsatisfactory kisses, to murmur reassurance. Qivah tries to hold onto the sense of safety she feels when Chesed is with her, but it is hard when the girls are whispering. She catches a glimpse of Wrenn and suddenly she is more afraid than she has ever been. Qivah turns away swiftly and goes to sit beside her mother, hoping for some comfort.

Ina-Mai’s new child has come. The baby rests on her mother’s ample lap, curled into the flesh that has been his home for so long. Qivah watches carefully. She counts the hours he sleeps and the times he eats. She sees how her mother cleans him and wraps him in the soft cloths. Soon she will have to do these things for her own child and she must learn how to do it right.

###

Qivah is ripe with the child. It can only be a few days but Chesed has not yet found the name of the goddess who will protect his woman and their baby. Qivah tries to reassure him. Her own mother has not needed to know the names of the gods to protect her children. Qivah tells Chesed she will be safe but inside the fear is growing. The demon is looming larger and she no longer thinks that she has the strength to fight for her child.

The pain comes in the night. Qivah presses her hands to her swollen stomach and sends nameless, hopeless prayers into the darkness. Ina-Mai looks over her daughter with knowing eyes. She sends for the birther and leaves her baby with the nurse, in order to tend to Qivah herself.

‘Chesed,’ pleads Qivah, but Ina-Mai ignores her. The business of birthing is not suitable for a man. Qivah must think only of her child.

Qivah is thinking only of her child. The pain does not allow her to do anything else. Even her fear is receding under the onslaught of this new agony. She cries out, unable to bear it. Ina-Mai presses a cool cloth to her brow but Qivah brushes this away. She screws up her face and waits for the next wave to pass over her.

It seems impossible that the world once existed beyond the whitewashed walls of the birthing chamber. Qivah can barely remember a time before the pain which utterly consumes her began. She is tired, so much so that she trembles when she is not exerting herself for the child. Ina-Mai gives her water to drink and exchanges a worried glance with the birther. It has been too long and the child is not moving.

Qivah lies back against her damp pillow and breathes. For a moment, she is aware of nothing other than her own chest, rising and falling. She is glad to be alive.

Then she feels the damp, sticky air of the enclosed room against her skin and it is wrong. Summoning all her strength, Qivah stands. Her mother reaches out an arm to hold her steady. The birther is trying to pull her back, but Qivah knows where she needs to go. She knows what the child is waiting for.

Chesed is standing in the garden and he is smiling, though his eyes are fearful. Qivah stumbles towards him, gulping in the fresh, cool air. Chesed catches her and helps her down onto the soft earth. The baby is moving now, she can feel it. Her body responds, pushing it out towards the sunlight. Qivah still feels the pain but now she does not care. Chesed is holding her and her child is coming. Her child is coming.

Ina-Mai and the birther are standing on the edge of the concrete. They do not dare to come nearer. They do not know what might happen in this strange place which Qivah has made with her earth and her man and her child who is coming. They cannot help her here. But the girl will need help.

Chesed is holding Qivah and he is thinking only of her and the child, who is coming now. He does not see the demon dancing in through the gap in the fence, because he is busy lifting the child and handing it to Qivah. Chesed is still gazing at his family in wonder when the childless woman who has watched Qivah planting her garden and growing her baby rushes in to defend them. Yalona snatches at the demon, pulling at its green hair and chasing it away from the child, but her efforts are futile. She is not quick enough or strong enough and the demon is coming closer. Ina-Mai has turned away so that she does not have to see her daughter’s shame. The birther has gone and Ina-Mai wishes that she could leave, too.

Qivah sees the demon and pulls her child closer against her breast, trying to make it part of herself once more. Chesed sees the demon and knows that his moment has come. He stares into the purple jewelled eyes, daring the devil to do his worst. Then he wraps his arms around Qivah and the child and looks up to the heavens.

‘Belet-Ili, Midwife of the Gods, I call on you to protect this, my child. Nintu, Goddess of the Womb, I call on you to save this, my child. Mami, Mistress of the Gods, I call on you to help this, my child.’

Belet-Ili. Nintu. Mami

No one has spoken those words for many centuries.

Until now. Chesed has found the name. He has found all my names.

I hear his prayer and I am redeemed. The world has forgiven me for the curse I laid upon it and there is hope once more.

I choke the air out of the demon, watching until his purple eyes are dull with death, then I cast him aside.

I smile on Yalona and watch the years fall away from her face as she smiles back. She will flourish, that one. Chesed and Qivah will be good to her, but she will find her own place of contentment.

I turn to Chesed. He flushes deep red when I commend him for his studies and for his faith. He stumbles an answer that is really a question but I shake my head. I cannot tell him how to rebuild this world that I once nearly destroyed. It is my penance to be forced only to watch and wait and hope.

Qivah is waiting, still holding the child. She nods at me and I bend to sever the cord between them. Her blood is soaking into the earth. She watches and she sees. She sees everything, this girl who is now a woman. She sees her child, and in her she sees the future.

She sees the swollen red fruit but she cannot reach it. It is given to me to pluck the tomato, the firstfruit from Qivah’s soil, and place it into her hand.

For a moment, Qivah and Chesed gaze at it, wondering at the generosity of the earth. Then Qivah lifts it to Chesed’s mouth. He bites, letting the juices run down over his chin. She catches the drip with her finger, and presses it to her lips, tasting the sweetness for herself.

The danger has passed. They do not need me now.

One day soon, Yalona will go to her sister Wrenn and tell her about me. She will explain how Chesed and Qivah are building a new life, together, with the blessing of the gods and the provision of the soil. She will tell Wrenn my name and she will promise that I will answer her prayer.

Wrenn will not listen. It is too late for her. She will be jealous of Qivah, whose baby was saved when Wrenn’s was taken. She will snarl and rage at Yalona and tell her that she cannot understand this misery.

Yalona will learn from this. She will see that she must go to the younger girls, those who are just beginning to fear their future. She will teach them how to hope. She will teach them the prayer which Chesed spoke. But it will be her contented smile that gives the girls courage when the fear creeps over them.

Qivah sits in her garden and holds her small daughter to her breast. She watches the child sucking the life from her and vows to give this girl everything she has. Qivah will teach her daughter to plant seeds and trust the earth to make them grow. She will tell her about the gods who are still in the city, waiting to bless them. She will give her a home with a father who knows how to protect the women he loves. Qivah turns her head slightly and finds Chesed there, waiting for her. The taste of the tomato on his lips is sweet when he kisses her, and his hand is gentle as it rests on their daughter’s head.

In the house of a woman who is giving birth
The mud brick shall be put down for seven days.
Belet-ili, wise Mami shall be honoured.
The midwife shall rejoice in the house of the woman who gives birth
And when the woman gives birth to the baby,
The mother of the baby shall sever herself.
A man to a girl…
…her bosom
A beard can be seen
On a young man’s cheek.
In gardens and waysides
A wife and her husband choose each other.