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…
A beard can be seen
On a young man’s cheek.
In gardens and waysides
A wife and her husband choose each other.