Erad died. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he?
And what can I do? I can’t turn to prostitution. Not like last time. Any man who’d want me would be no good. And besides, what would Terim think? I have to consider the boy. He’s the only thing Erad left me except this black eye, and I’d rather forget that.
There’s not much a woman in my position can do. So, gathering sticks it is. Out to the fields around the city. Out to the ravines, beyond the fields, to the places of danger. The places you could call out and no one would hear. Coming back, past the men sweaty in the fields. Selling bundles of branches at dusk as the men came back in.
Dealing with that rough lot. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.
No, the black eye isn’t fresh. The old one just won’t heal.
“What was abba like?” Terim asks me one day.
I tell him about Erad. His dark, curly hair. The way his smiles were never even. His strong hands. Those green eyes.
Terim cocks his head. “I thought he had brown eyes.”
Of course he did.
“I have green eyes.”
Of course you do. Go play, child.
I make bread over the coals every night. A little oil. A little flour. Nothing more. We never have much, but we always have oil and flour. Those never run out. There’s always someone who needs sticks. Twigs. Kindling. And I gather for them.
Yes, my back is sore.
The well is dry. I know. It always is if you’re late. The younger women, they have their fill. It’s the drought, you see. Over a year now. You need to get up early if you’re going to get your water. I do. I need to make sure Terim has what he needs. He’s growing.
The oil and the flour aren’t always enough for him anymore. That’s all right. I don’t need as much as I used to.
No. No, my eye is feeling fine.
No, the men leave me alone. They buy my branches and twigs, that’s all. Yes, I know they’re a rough lot. No, I don’t have a man to protect me.
No, thank you. I don’t need your help.
I will sell you sticks though, if you need some for your fire.
I know. You need your money to feed your family. I know.
It’s all right. Go. Take care of them.
Terim? What are you doing here? Yes, I know. I’m hungry, too. Did you drink your water?
Yes. Go home. Here, take these sticks. No, it’s not enough for a decent fire. It’s hard to find good branches now. It’s been too long since the rain. All the wood is far from the city.
Yes, I’m going to get some more. We’ll have enough for supper tonight.
Yes, we have enough oil and flour. Why wouldn’t we?
Why wouldn’t we?
And as he goes, I cannot tell him. We have enough for tonight. And after that?
After that we will die.
So I go. Out the city gate. Over the dusty ground. I can’t even cough any more. The dust does not bother me. People move in the fields, trying to grow something. Anything. Dust everywhere.
I pass them. Past brown people on brown ground. Past the men that once bought from me. Past the men that once ignored me. Past the men that once begged my favor. Past the men that once paid for me. They don’t have money for me now. Their eyes are elsewhere.
Here. The old fast-growth. The dirt is cracked where the stream used to be.
My old hands pick up cracked twigs. Branches. Sticks.
“Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”
I jump. I didn’t hear him coming. It’s an old man. His beard is dirty. I step back. I could cry for help and no one would ever hear. No, he doesn’t look like he’s going to take advantage of our distance from help.
I nod. Terim won’t drink his water until I make our last meal.
As I turn to lead him into the city, he calls out, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
Men. They have always taken from me. And this one now asks for my last meal, stealing from the mouth of my only son. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he?
The story concludes here.