lisa t cresswell lisa t cresswell lisa t cresswell
Vessel

Vessel

Excerpt

Year 2165

Master Dine's kick sent me sprawling into the wall. Pain bloomed in my shoulder. That was nothing new, but my billa slipped dangerously close to falling off. I grasped at the awkward headgear, a giant tent designed to hide my ugliness.

No one must see, I thought.

"It's too hot, you stupid chit," Master Dine yelled.

At seventeen, I was officially a woman and had been for a while, but no one gave a slave girl that recognition.

"Now look what you've done," he said. The clay teapot I'd been using to pour water over Master's feet lay shattered on the floor. "Clean it up, chit."

I silently seethed as I collected the pieces. I wasn't a chit. I was Alana, a name I'd given myself and no one else used. I cursed him under my billa, something he'd never hear through the dark, black drapes shrouding me from everyone. I prayed Mother Sun would do terrible things to him, something that didn't make me feel any better.

"When you're done with that, go help Master Tow. He's expecting you."

"But your bath?"

"I'll do it myself," Master Dine spat at me, as if he didn't trust me, as if I hadn't been washing his feet every morning since I was old enough to hold soap.

Master Dine was one of the oldest men in our village at almost forty, too mean to die of flu fever like most old men. He'd caught it once or twice, but it only seemed to make him more determined to live.

"Yes, Master," I whispered and ducked out of the room with the remains of the teapot. I threw them in the garbage pit behind the house as I left for Master Tow's. I'd have to make a new one later. I wondered when I would find the time to gather the clay from the riverbank, which was a fair walk from here. Where was here? Master Dine's village was called Roma.

Master Dine reminded me constantly I wasn't from this place—my eyes too almond-shaped, my hair too black, and my skin too yellow to be from Roma. My looks didn't stop him from slinking into my room in the darkness to have his way with me. I was his, bought from my own parents in a faraway place, he always said. Even in the dark, he made me cover my face. I closed my eyes anyway. Maybe if I couldn't see Master Dine with his lazy eye and crooked teeth, he'd cease to exist. Please, Mother Sun, make it so.

* * *

I walked down the dirty footpath toward Roma's center market square, past the mud and stone houses scraped together with whatever the inhabitants could find. It was early yet; fog still clung to the base of the mountains and dripped off the trees' new leaves. Winter was breaking at last. Mother Sun had saved us again, but we always knew she could destroy us if she wanted to.

I didn't mind wearing the billa so much when the weather was cool or misty like this morning. It trapped my own warm breath around me like a cocoon. It made doing chores outside awkward, though. Master Dine kept me primarily for house chores, although I was allowed to shop on market day, and he occasionally lent me to Master Tow. Tow had no wives and probably needed his house cleaned.

Master Tow was a young man in his twenties, still undecided on a wife. Suitable women were rare in Roma, so he was faced with the prospect of waiting until certain girls came of age or traveling to the next province for a wife. The expense of a wife was more than Tow really wanted, so he borrowed me from time to time. It was an arrangement he had with Dine, made possible by Dine's first wife, Mistress Shel. Shel hated my position in her house as a sort of third wife, a standing I could never truly attain even if I wanted to. It was Shel who had disfigured the right side of my face years ago. It hadn't stopped Dine's visits to me, just made him more discrete.

Master Tow was chopping wood in the small yard next to his house. His clothes, littered with fine shavings of fir, made him smell better than usual. He was stripped to the waist, his pale chest glistening with sweat even in the morning cold. I stopped and waited. I could never address anyone without first being addressed myself. I learned that very young.

Master Tow continued his work, perhaps enjoying the fact that I was his audience. He often flirted with me, even though he had no reason to tease a slave. I think he was quite proud of his own blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Taunting all the unsuitable women in town seemed to please him tremendously. And so I stood perfectly still, watching the breeze blow the fabric in front of my face until he finally spoke.

"Hello, chit," he said, taking a break from his chopping.

"Master Dine said you were expecting me."

"So I am." Tow breathed heavily, his ribs showing under his creamy skin with each exhale. He dropped his hatchet in the dirt at his feet and held up two fingers beckoning me to follow him behind his house. I hesitated. Wasn't I doing housework? What did Tow have in store for me?

"C'mon, chit! Haven't got until sundown," he called, his tone good-natured as always.

I couldn't shake the feeling he was playing a trick on me, but I followed him down the hill behind his house through a thicket of small aspen just beginning to bud. I soon saw it was a shortcut he used to reach the square rather than taking the main path that switch-backed down the mountain. Although it was easy for him, the trees snagged the fabric of my billa.

"Come on!" his voice urged. I wasn't sure, but I thought I heard him muttering under his breath about my ridiculous garb. None of the other slaves wore what I wore. I stood out wherever I went—a black ghost in a crowd of humans. Everyone knew it was my punishment for tempting Dine. That's what Shel told them and most believed it.

I did my best to keep up with Tow. Once out of the shrubs, it was easier to match his pace. He headed for the crumbling castle perched on a precipice over the wide green valley on the edge of Roma. Eons ago, before the Great Death that wiped out billions, some strange unknown race had built castles all across this region. Most were rubble now.

No one lived there, but the people of Roma sometimes stored things in some of the rooms or held meetings there. Windows long gone, the arches still stood in places, the stone thick with moss and lichens silently feasting on the remains of the beast. It was a forgotten place, somewhere I rarely went because I wasn't invited to public affairs. As Tow and I got close, I heard the sound of someone singing a sad melody in a cool, clear voice. Even the birds in the trees were drawn to it, flitting away only when we came near.

As I followed Tow down a stone stairway littered with last winter's dead leaves into the ruins and closer to the voice, my fears melted away and curiosity overcame me. Tow couldn't walk fast enough now. Who was it? And why were they here? The singing suddenly stopped.

Deep inside the castle, where little sunshine could penetrate, Tow stopped at an old door with a small slit for a tiny window. A boy's face, not much older than mine, with dark hair and eyes like mine, peered out of the opening.

"You can't keep us in here," the boy said, his voice angry.

"Don't worry. It won't be long before the authorities come for you. A week at the most," said Tow. He turned to me. "These two were caught last night stealing. You need to feed them at least once a day, no more. Just enough to keep them alive for their trial."

"Trial?" I asked.

"The Reticents have been summoned. They'll send someone to pick them up."

"But what do I feed them, Master Tow?"

Everyone's winter stores were running low and few spring crops had been harvested yet. Master Dine wouldn't allow me to use his food for such a purpose.

"Hog feed will do."

"Hog feed?" shouted the prisoner. "We're not animals!" I flinched and backed away from him.

"Never you mind that, chit. Do as you're told. Put the food in here." Master Tow pointed to a small slot near the floor with the toe of his boot. "Don't open the door, no matter what."

"Yes, Master Tow."

"Any questions?"

"Have they been fed today?"

"No. Better get to work."

Master Tow turned and bounded up the stairs. I stood motionless, watching the black-eyed boy watching me. I'd never seen anyone like me before. He looked hard at the billa like he could see underneath.

"Do you have any water?" he asked in an accent I didn't recognize. "He's very weak."

The prisoner backed away from the door so I could creep up and peer inside. The oldest man I'd ever seen, maybe fifty years or more, lay on the floor. He groaned as the boy knelt down and touched his arm.

"I'm here," he said to the old man. Before I knew it, I'd loosened the water bag I kept tied at my hip and pushed it through the hole in the wall toward them.

"Take this. I'll be back," I whispered before hurrying to find food.

* * *

Normally I fed the hogs caysha roots I dug up in the forest. A person could eat them and survive, but they weren't kind to the stomach. They were a last resort, eaten only when all else was gone. I'd eaten them myself when the winters were hard and Master Dine saved all his food for his family. Slaves weren't supposed to forage for their own food. It was a sign a family wasn't wealthy enough to support them, but Dine looked the other way quite often. He allowed me to find other means of sustenance when times called for it, which was more often than not. The less of his food I ate, the more wealthy he fancied himself.

I walked as quickly as I could without attracting attention to a meadow below the castle where the caysha had started to bloom, blue lilies on tall stems. I dug a few roots to satisfy Master Tow, but I had no intention of feeding them to the prisoners. I dropped them in my basket and slung it over my shoulder, heading for the river. Checking my traps, I found a snared rabbit and smiled for the first time that day. Not that anyone knew or cared. I spent my days alone in a tent made for one, seldom speaking to anyone. But something in that boy's eyes reached out to me behind the curtain. I wasn't going to serve him hog feed. My decision risked a beating, but it wouldn't mean my death. Though I didn't fear death anyway.

* * *

An hour had passed by the time I returned to the ruined castle dungeon with food, water, and fuel. Midday was approaching yet the prisoners made no sound. I hoped to hear his song again the way I longed for the lark song after winter. Like a mouse cleaning up crumbs, I silently cleared away the leaves in a dark corner near the stairs and built a cooking fire. The smell of roasting meat brought the boy's face to the hole in the door once more.

"You're torturing me," he complained, although his lips smiled.

"It won't be much longer," I said, crossing the room to the door between us. "I brought more water. Give me the water bag, and I'll refill it." He scrambled to retrieve the bag and return it.

"How is he?" I asked, looking at the impossibly old man.

"Better. Some real food will do him good."

I handed the boy some jake nuts through the slot in the wall. "Chew these. They'll help keep the food down."

He shoved the handful into his mouth.

"Save one for him," I said, pointing to the old man. The boy chewed hard but managed to spit out one nut for his friend. He knelt by the man again and shook his arm.

"Kinder? Wake up. It's dinner time." The old man sat up with the boy's help, leaning against the stone wall. "Eat this," he said, giving him the nut.

I refilled the water and retrieved the rabbit from the spit on the fire. It had started to burn, the grease glistening on the meat. Too big to fit through the slot, the rabbit had to be torn into pieces and slipped into the cell. The boy snatched it from my fingers and rushed to the old man, who suddenly came alive, devouring it. The boy returned and snagged a second piece for himself, ignoring me as he inhaled his food. I waited by the slot with the rest of the meat, holding it until they were ready for it. The sounds of eating, chewing, and licking made me hungry, but I didn't eat any. The rabbit would've been my lunch, but I'd eat wild carrots instead.

I gave them the remains of the rabbit and returned to the corner to put out my fire. Master Tow mustn't know I'd cooked, so I hid my hearth as best I could with damp leaves and rubble. The moss on the stone walls would hide any sign of smoke. I turned to go.

"Wait," called the boy. "What's your name?"

The words I'd never heard directed at me, the words I dreamt of every night, came from his lips. Was he speaking to me? Of course he was. There was no one else here.

"Is it Chit?"

"No. I'm Alana." I'd never told anyone the name I chose for myself. It felt good to say it out loud.

"Thank you, Alana. I'm Recks, and this is Kinder. We're grateful for your kindness. May Mother Sun shine on you."

I stopped breathing for a second. No one had ever blessed me before. It just wasn't done. I waited as if the sky might fall down.


© Lisa T. Cresswell

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