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Desert Beginnings

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Introduction

Chores. My life can be summed up by one word. One ends, another begins. Washing, drying, scrubbing, sweeping, hanging, soaking, fetching, stacking, mending, chopping, cooking, cleaning, and any other verb of the sort. That’s what I do. Ever since I was abandoned at the chieftan’s doorstep, my days and nights have been filled with chores.
Well, that and “corrections”. Punishments, beatings, consequences, canings, lashings, switchings, whatever you want to title them, the Chieftain is exact in his expectations of any individual within his household. Promoted scullery maid included.

I used to sleep at the maid’s feet, but since she disappeared a few months ago, I’ve been “promoted”. The bed is mine, for what little good it does me. I hardly have time to utilize it. Her chores have fallen to me.

This morning began the same; dragging my sore body from my lumpy mattress, ignoring the stinging of the back of my legs from yesterday’s punishment, checking the main water cogs for the house, and heading to the kitchen to begin breakfast chores.

Even though I was surrounded by normality, I couldn’t shake this feeling that something abnormal and monstrous was about to occur. This nagging feeling had plagued me once or twice in my life. Most recently, it happened the afternoon before the maid left, but all the other times nothing became of it. A fluke, or coincidence, is the only thing I can chalk it up to. Ignoring it is my only course of action.

It was as I was heading to market that the alien feeling increased. I forced myself out the door anyway, fearing punishment for leaving a task incomplete.

I had already visited the granary, gathered the spuds the Chieftain’s mistress loved, and filled my sack with fresh veggies. My bags were heavy, but to set them down would mean to lose them. So I hiked them higher on my shoulder and trudged on.

My heart sunk as I approached the fruit station. My punishment would be severe; most of the produce was gone. Just a few burlap and leather baskets on the sand. After a shaky, exhausted sigh, I shuffled my bags around and stooped to rummage through the subpar fruit.

As I began sorting, my unease from the morning made itself known. My concentration fled; the center of my chest throbbed in a disconcerting effort. My lungs tightened, making each breath a struggle. Amidst my bags, crouched to the ground, I lifted my head. My eyes locked on a man in the crowd. My world shifted.

The man wore typical desert garb. He walked like those around him, and was altogether unmemorable. Except for his eyes.
Was it the color? The shape? Or maybe just the clarity I saw within them?

Whatever it was eased the ache in my limbs, liften the weight of my bags, and cleared the exhaustion from my mind.

And he hadn’t even looked in my direction!

My heart lurched in my chest and an inexplicable fear clutched my throat. As his gaze swung in my direction, I quickly resumed rummaging through the fruit. He’d see nothing but a haggard soul desperately searching for food.

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A sharp, fierce pain radiates down my legs. I gasp, unwilling to wail in distress. Only two more. Another lash, and tears pour down my cheeks. The last strike is harsh and unrelenting. My breath is erratic, my body shaking in pain, my adrenaline running high.

: I require fresh fruit on market days. Do not disappoint me again.” the Chieftan demands.

I keep my head lowered but respond as clearly as my vocals will allow, “Yes, sir.”

“Dinner will not be late. Get busy!” he commands.

Refusing to scurry like a kicked dog, I keep my shoulders back and briskly head to the kitchen. I long to weep and tend to the back of my legs, but cannot afford the luxury. A late dinner means more lashed. Without even brushing the tears from my face, I begin the evening meal preparations. Tears continue to leak out of my eyes and my hands shake, making chopping a difficult task.

Usually this isn’t such a challenge. Punishments and chores are constants in my life. Lashes are regular. These latest additions are mild in comparison to others I’ve received. They weren’t even on bared skin.

So why is my body still on high alert? Why won;t these tears cease? Why am I shaking so strongly?

The memory of eyes fill my vision. The stranger’s eyes from the market this morning. They resurface clearly, filling my mental picture. I briefly remember the physical relief I felt from being in his presence. But the overwhelming fear pierces me anew. It’s a fresh wound. Raw. Hidden deep. Invisible to the eyes, but too strong to not affect my body.

I cannot process both the panicked fear and the pain from the punishment. I had lied to myself, feigning relief when the man walked away from me. This time I must face this fear. I must realize that my actions, though cowardly, were appropriate.

I drop the sliced vegetables into the stew, wash my shaking hands, and splash water on my face.

My intuition has never failed me. This fear is potent. Unfeigned. Extreme. My eyes dart around the kitchen. I am alone.

I walk over to the corner and slide in the tiny slot between my cot and the wall. I pull my heels in, wrap my arms around my knees, and hide my face in my lap. I curl as small as I can. I take up the smallest amount of space that I am able. I focus inward.

I am a grain of sand. Small. Compact. Indivisible. Solid. Inconsequential. One.

No room for emotions. No fear, heartache, or misery. Just me.

No mystery. No loneliness. Just myself, a singular grain of sand. I may be surrounded by other grains, but none other matter. I am all I have. All I require. None other will carry my burdens. A deep inhale. With a forceful exhale, I unravel my body, centered.

My legs throb, but my hands are steady and my soul is silent. I resume the arduous task of cooking a three-course meal.