Book: Hell's Grannies - Kickass Tales of the Cronecategories: Book, Genre Fiction, Mature Women, Ageing Gracefullly, Ageing Disgracefully, Crone Power, Short Stories
Rayne Hallabout this anthology: Ten stories by ten authors - serious, scary, funny and thoughtful.
Here's an excerpt, the beginning of a short story by Rayne Hall, loosely based on a Shakespeare drama.
Widow Leha rubbed her cold-stiffened hands against her cheeks. After six nights in a makeshift shelter of broken beams and fir branches, would she ever feel warm again?
"Come, now." The neighbour boy, twelve-year-old Jehanzeb, pulled her sleeve. "It's our duty to find food." Carrying his father's bronze scimitar strapped to his back, he seemed to have grown taller and straighter than she remembered.
The Mighty Ones had swept most of the village down the slope into the ravine, teaching the sinners a forceful lesson. But they had also smashed Leha's home, turning it into a rubble of mudbrick, studded with splintered roof beams, soaked with spilled olive oil and animal blood.
Thirty years ago, a young man had promised Leha to build her the most beautiful house on this spot if she would wed him. With his own hands he had created a two-storey jewel with a veranda, a livestock stable, and living quarters. It had been a perfect home, for many years alive with children's laughter. Now it was gone.
She owned nothing but the nightdress on her body, the small gold drops in her ear, and a curtain to wrap around her against the cold.
Mighty Ones, why have you struck my home with the same blow as those of the sinners? I did not need this lesson. I have always listened and obeyed your laws.
But arguing with the gods was futile.
"We're blessed, because the gods have chosen us for their protection," she told the boy. "We must remember to thank them with proper prayers, and prove ourselves worthy of their favour in everything we do." She drew her embroidered curtain around her head against the biting morning wind.
"We're blessed because we have kin. It's not the walls around us, but the family around us that make our home," Jehanzeb quoted with earnest pride. "This is written in the Wisdom Scrolls. I've learnt it in Temple School. I'm blessed because I have four sisters alive, and my sisters are blessed because they have me. And you have your three daughters."
"Two daughters," Leha corrected firmly. "I have two fine grown-up daughters. Only two." Once there had been three children in that house, but the youngest, like the foul flesh of a bruised apple, had to be cut out before it could spoil the rest of the fruit.
"Let's go." She set off.
A steady drizzle cloaked everything in dampness, and the wind drove a chill deep into the bones. Leha and Jehanzeb marched briskly. With every step on the steep-sloping, rubble-strewn path, pain stabbed into her ageing knees.
That first night under the cold stars, Leha said her prayers and Jehanzeb stroked his scimitar before they huddled together in a hollow. They shared a blanket and the warmth of their bodies. The biting chill drove searing pain into Leha's joints. She wanted to weep.
Why, Mighty Ones, are you tormenting me so? Have I not always served you well? Have I not cut my own daughter out of the family, obeying your divine will, and wiped her name from memory? Have I not been good?
As soon as the first fingers of dawn touched the sky, Leha and Jehanzeb rose to keep searching a region unscathed by divine wrath. Surely in Ain Muzab they would get food and shelter, and help for those left behind.
But the further they trekked, the greater the devastation grew. Landslides had carried away the mountain track, ripped the bridges from their foundations, covered the paths with rubble and mud. Mountain after mountain had its snow-capped peaks cracked, its sloping pastures ripped open, its insides exposed as gaping wounds. The fist of disaster had shattered the whole world.
Clusters of fresh grave mounds appeared like mushrooms everywhere, and still more dead were being pulled from the rubble. People carried hunger in their eyes, and the injured moaned softly.
Leha's chest brimmed with pity for their suffering. "I have no food." She showed her empty palms. "But I will pray to the Mighty Ones for you."
"Prayers won't fill my stomach," a woman grumbled, "nor rebuild my home."
A flock of youngsters descended on Leha, tore at her curtain-shawl, and yelled with triumph at the sight of her earrings. "Gold! She has gold drops in her ears!" They would have ripped the drops from her ears had Jehanzeb not drawn his scimitar.
From then on, she kept her ears covered, and her face averted, to avoid attention. Suffering had turned these people into shameless beasts who no longer saw right from wrong. They might kill wanderers to rob them of the flesh they carried on their bones.
Every day she expected to reach the regions where disaster had not struck, but silence and suffering spread everywhere. What if even Ain Muzab was struck? What if Mahlega and Gonila had been hurt? Hunger gnawed at her stomach, and worry at her heart, and it grew hard to keep up with her companion's cheer.
It took seven days of desperate marching, with nothing in their stomachs but water and grass, before they neared Ain Muzab. Hordes of desperate relief seekers had stamped out a winding, narrow, slippery path. People were trying to reach the remnants of the road below, while others were returning home, carrying bales and sacks on their heads with whatever useful items they had been able to beg, buy or scavenge.
"Go back home, there's no help in Ain Muzab!" an angry man shouted. "The officials are worse than warlords."
One woman thrust a basket at her. "Look at this. That's what they gave me. Five bunches of dates. That's all I got for my whole family, and I tell you, I walked three days to get there." When Leha peeked at the basket, the woman snatched it away as if fearing theft.
"Tell me, good woman," Leha begged. "How is the area around the market? Does the schoolhouse still stand?"
"You won't believe the prices they charge for bread and yoghurt now! I tell you, it's robbery, that's what it is."
"My daughters live there, I must know," Leha begged. "My eldest, with her husband and children, on the north end of the market. He's an official. Have you met him? And Gonila is the teacher, she lives in the schoolhouse. Please tell me, does the schoolhouse stand?"
"Robbery, I tell you, these officials should be hanged."
No one offered information about what mattered most, so Leha walked on. At last, the town came within sight.
The vision tempted her to wish she was blind. Even from the distance, she smelled death, sickening and sweet. Half the mountain had tumbled into the valley, smothering half the town and smashing the rest. Landmarks lay in shattered ruins.
Squinting against the midday sun, she tried to discern patterns where roads had been. Yes, that was the road that led from the market to the temple. Yes, some houses stood - battered and broken, but still proud amidst the rubble and dust. And yes, yes, yes! There was the one she had given Mahlega as her dowry. The schoolhouse also stood like a solitary tower amidst the decay.
Joy drove her on. Her girls were safe. They would embrace her in their homes.
Once she and her husband had owned three houses, two in town, and one in the mountain village. They'd been merchants and had lived in town. But then she'd sold one house to finance her second daughter's education, and given Mahlega the other as a dowry. She'd retired to the small house in the mountains, the one she loved most. Eventually she had meant to give this third house to her favourite daughter, the lovely Komal – but – no, she wouldn't think about that ungrateful girl.
But on the walk down the steep track, thoughts of Komal pierced her like needles. Had the girl survived the earthquake? How was she faring, with a small child and no husband?
"She's no longer my kin," Leha said, unaware that she was speaking aloud.
Jehanzeb raised an arm like a lecturing priest. "I learnt at Temple School that mercy blesses those who give as well as those who take. And the Book of Crones says that even when kin are like spittle, we must keep swallowing them lest we die of thirst."
"The Book of Crones also says: Don't do any good to the bad, and don't expect good from the bad," Leha countered. "Komal brought shame on the family. She disgraced us by getting with child. Not even by a man who would marry her, but by a passing stranger. By casting her out I acted righteous."
"The Seventh Scroll of Wisdom says that kin need to stick to kin like skin to the flesh."
Leha snorted. "Save your proverbs for school. This is real life, and you'll soon find you have some serious lessons to learn."
"I know. I'm the man of the family now, and won't go back to school."
"My two real daughters love me and give me nothing but pride and joy."
"I always liked Komal best," Jehanzeb said. "She taught me to read even before I went to Temple School."
Leha's heart ached at the foul memory. Komal had been a kind girl, and clever, too. Cleverer even than Gonila. A real scholar, the best girl in her class, she had always helped children whose parents couldn't afford the school fees. Who would have thought that this compassionate, pious daughter would choose the path of sin and disgrace?
"It says in Scroll fourteen: Drive out the rat lest it brings the plague to your home." That would show this precocious boy that she, too, had an education. "Even her sisters agreed that she had to go! I was compassionate even as I cast her out. I let her take her clothes and gave her a blanket."
"Clothes and a blanket," Jehanzeb repeated in a tone of wonderment which made her generosity sound mean.
They crossed the river by the only surviving bridge which hung by frayed ropes.
The rain had finally ceased. Families huddled, hollow-eyed, coughing and sneezing, around fires that didn't want to burn in the still-damp air. Children with matted hair, blood-encrusted clothes and runny noses held out their hands and bare feet towards the flames, begging for warmth. Leha's heart lurched with pity, and she thanked the Mighty Ones that her own ordeal would be over soon. She wouldn't need to surrender to this misery.
The upper story of Mahlega's home showed a crack in the wall, and part of the roof had tumbled in, but there was life inside.
"Come in, come in," Leha urged her young companion. "You need a hot meal and a rest as much as I do."
"I think not." He gazed at his hands, flexed his fingers. "I'll join the relief queues while they still have food."
He sneaked away before she could reply.
The door opened a crack. "Oh Mother, it's you. I'm so glad you're here." Mahlega undid the chain and pulled her mother in. "Come quickly, so the heat doesn't escape."
She bolted the door before drawing Leha into a jasmine-scented embrace and shouted back into the living room, "All's well now, Mother has come."
The place smelled of sandalwood incense, hot mint and spicy stew. The warm air caressed Leha's cheeks.
"The place is a mess, I'm afraid," Mahlega apologised, "All of us living on the ground floor now, because the roof has caved in. The window parchments have ripped, so it's awfully cold, even with the rugs nailed across."
"It feels cosy to me," Leha assured her. After sleeping outdoors, this home was a paradise of warmth.
Mahlega shoved a stray strand of hair out of her face. "The well has dried up, so I have to walk all the way to the river to get water, and I have to filter and boil it because it's not clean. The youngest has a broken leg and won't keep it still, all my painted clay bowls got smashed. You can't get decent stuff in the market, nobody says when they'll repair our homes, all the authorities send is pickled olives and dried dates, and worn clothes, would you believe it? Summer tunics, useless in this weather, and smelly and stained." Mahlega paused in her whines to let out a deeper sigh. "I'll boil up a pot of water on the stove, so you can have a warm wash, though we really don't have much firewood left, and I'll sort out some dry clothes."
Leha slipped into the curtained-off wash corner. Warmth prickled her fingers with welcome pain. She took her time to rinse away the travel dust and the weariness, enjoying every drop of warmth on her flesh. Then she joined the family for the evening meal. Mahlega's husband spoke the prayers in the resonant voice of a skilled preacher, thanking the Mighty Ones for his job, his income, his good health and that of his family. "And especially thanks for sending Leha to us in this time of need."
Leha savoured the buttered couscous, the spicy beans, the fragrant mint tea.
Again, Mahlega apologised for the untidiness and reduced comforts of the place, and Leha assured her she didn't mind at all. "Up in the village, people have nothing left, not even a room or a stove or a change of clothes. They're starving and freezing."
Mahlega patted her hair which was piled high on her head and fastened with glittery barrettes. "This place is a mess. I can't put up with this much longer. We can't live on the ground floor with six people in just two rooms."
Leha filled her bowl with couscous for the third time, helped herself to more lentils, and sent another grateful silent prayer to the Mighty Ones for the food.
The twins were quarrelling, the youngest sneezed and whined, and the oldest boy shouted from the bench, "I'm fed up with staying here. This leg itches. Why can't I have it fixed properly?"
One of the twins banged his spoon on the table. "Why can't we have new clothes for the Festival of the Dancing Souls? All our friends are getting new clothes."
"Mighty Ones, Mahlega, can't you keep them quiet?" the husband said. "I deserve to eat my meal in peace."
She lowered her lids. "Yes, husband."
To Leha, he said, "I've got my hands full at work, you can't imagine. All the corpses still lying under the rubble – I'm the one who has to find people to dig them out. And all those refugees! They come from the mountains and expect to be housed and fed. I'm dealing with supplies, distribution, health hazards, beggars, robbery, all day long, and then I come home and I have to listen to more squabbles."
"The government doesn't help," Mahlega said. "You'd think they'd give us some real help, like money to fix the roof. But all we get is dried dates, dates and more dates. Not even fine ones, but the low grade normally used for animal fodder. Same as the beggars."
Leha put down her spoon. "Up in the village, people would be grateful for the dates. I've met a woman on the way here, she walked for days just to get some dates for her family. There's a boy, Jehanzeb, who came down with me. You may remember him, Mahlega. I wonder if we could –"
"Surely you don't plan to dump that urchin on us!"
"He's an obnoxious wise-cracker, but he's polite and kind, and he always helps me milk -" Leha corrected herself. "He always used to help me milk the cows and muck out the stables."
"You paid him for that, didn't you?"
"He also helped me on the way here. I couldn't have done without him."
"He's a pest, always scrounging. He'd like it fine to come in here and eat our food."
"He's a good boy," Leha insisted. "He's always doing what is right."
"I tell you," the husband said, "he's after free handouts like everyone else. They come and want everything for free and give nothing. Not like you." He leant across the table and pressed both hands around Leha's. "I'm so glad you've come. Now we can move into the house by the temple."
Leha frowned. "What house by the temple?"
"Your house by the Temple of the Divine Mercy. I checked it this morning, and it's sound, without even a crack. I'll help you evict the tenants."
"I don't own that house any more. I sold it years ago to pay for Gonila's education."
He dropped her hands. "I can't believe it. Mahlega, did you know about this?"
Mahlega lowered her eyes. "Now that she mentions it, I remember, Gonila's school fees were expensive."
"Almost exactly the same value as your dowry," Leha pointed out. "Which included this house. Have I not always treated you both with absolute fairness?"
Mahlega focused on mashing the vegetables in her bowl. "It's just that we would really need that house now."
"Because this one is in a state," her husband said. "I don't have the money to get the fallen roof repaired." His eyes pierced Leha like robbers' daggers, demanding payment.
"My own house is gone," she said. "And with it all I possessed. Until I can find someone to rebuild it for me, I'll have to live with you."
They looked at her aghast.
"Out of the question," her son-in-law said. "I can't have you live here, with six people in two rooms already."
The eldest said, "She can sleep in the bed with Mama, and you sleep on the floor with us."
Silence soaked the air. Mahlega heaped more couscous in her husband's already piled bowl.
"Why aren't you sleeping on the floor with us, Papa?" one of the twins asked. The youngest piped up, "I want to sleep in the bed with Grandma."
"That's enough!" He slammed a fist on the table, making the bowls jump. "I will not have disobedience in my house. Mahlega, can't you teach them to behave?"
She ladled another spoon of couscous on his heap. The embarrassed flush of her face almost matched her deep pink shawl. "I'm sorry, Mother, that's how it is," she muttered. "Of course you're welcome to drop in for a meal now and then."
"And I'll assist you with advice. I'll tell you which office to go to queue for a place in a tent," her husband said. "Better go soon, the queues are bound to be long at night, and when I'm not there to oversee matters, things are bound to go wrong."
Swallowing her disappointment, Leha forced a smile. "Let's go straight away."
"I can't go to the office outside my regular duty hours. I mean, what would my superiors think?" His nose crinkled. "It's not that I'm ashamed of being seen with you, not really, but this is something you can do yourself."
"I see." The spicy beans suddenly tasted stale.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I've worked all day, I've dealt with everyone's problems, my head aches, I'm tired."
Mahlega stroked his arm, soothing. "You deserve a rest, dear, you do."
Leha rose. "I have walked all the way from the village to come here. Five days. I'm aching and bruised. I don't have proper clothes, and my shoes have holes. And this is all I get?"
"Of course not." He glanced at her through narrowed eyes. "I won't expect my mother-in-law to walk from my house in rags." He turned to his wife. "Find her something, won't you?"
"Keep the clothes you have on," Mahlega said. "And you can have my old boots, they still have a lot of wear in them. And a blanket."
"Get her a bowl of couscous," the husband instructed. "No, give her two."
The door clanked shut behind Leha. A sharp breeze slapped her cheeks and blew venom into her eyes. She wrapped her new shawl – her daughter's old shawl, laden with red ruffles and silvery tassels, and rich with the smell of jasmine – tightly around her head.
Mighty Ones, let these people taste the fruit of bitterness. Turn their own children against them, let them feel what it means to be cast aside.
Fortunately, she had another daughter, one who truly loved her and who was not poisoned by a husband's ambitions.
Fields of rubble had replaced roads, and the day's drizzle had turned the broken bricks and dust into dark red mud. Rats scurried, chased by hungry boys. Small girls dug with bare fingers for earth worms and grubs. Leah walked fast towards the schoolhouse, skirting around broken wall segments and stepping across slabs of stone, her head lowered against the wind's bite.
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