Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Episode Two

  Milyi dashed through the village on two, swift brown feet. The tents blurred around her, a stream of soft colors against the green of the surrounding forest. Her heart beat a steady rhythm, matching her quick steps. She raced through the dirt clearing in the center of the dwellings, passed the central cooking fire, and scattered the little groups of chickens that gathered for their morning feed.

She was late again, despite her best efforts to avoid it. Her long hair, half braided and half loose, swung against her shoulders in a dark mass. Milyi imagined what her grandmother would say if she was reprimanded again, cringed, and increased her pace. Her lungs burned by the time she skittered to a stop in the next clearing.

Teacher’s eyes fixed on her, eyebrows raised at her unfinished hair. The other students gathered in a small circle around the taller woman, and a chorus of giggles met Milyi's arrival.

“Late again, Milyi?” Teacher’s voice held scorn. Her palms rested on her hips, and she added a disapproving tut.

 Milyi cringed again and hung her head. Don’t make it worse, don’t say anything.

“Well,” Teacher motioned her forward, “move it.”

Milyi sighed and scuttled to join the others. She'd earned no lecture today, would not have to face her grandmother with fresh gossip on the wind.

The class had seven students, four girls and three boys. All of them wore the traditional short blouses and flowing skirts that marked them as dancers in training. Their feet remained bare and their hair had been carefully plaited. Milyi joined their circle, smoothing her rumpled skirt and flipping her unkempt tresses back over her shoulders.

Teacher turned to the pair of drums which waited beside her and began to tap out the rhythm they'd been learning. In unison, the students moved their feet, turned and mimed the steps to the newest dance.

Milyi focused as hard as she could on the motions. It was a simple routine, and it bored her, but she loved the hollow sound of the drums, and she felt the beat pull at her and call her to move. Her mind drifted and her feet continued automatically to answer the sounds bellowing from under Teacher’s swift palms.

She hadn't begun as a dancer. Grandmother had insisted she study something practical. To both their dismay, Milyi’s practical skills were not something to be admired. She had failed miserably to cook anything edible, had become distracted and allowed several of the village chickens to wander so far into the forest that it took days to round them up again, and had been asked never to return to weaving class after only one session. Grandmother made her do double chores that night, informed her she was a disgrace through deliberate tears, and cried out to the gods for another child like Milyi's older sister, Maya, a wonderful cook, who had married a man from a neighboring tribe and now had three children of her own.
The very next morning, Milyi had begun taking dancing classes.

She came back from her thoughts just in time to stop flawlessly with the rest of the class. She danced well. The movements came easily to her, and she was always the first to memorize a new routine, but lately she fought against constant distraction. The routines seemed too simple, and they quickly bored her.

She tried to focus when they began again. This routine had a basic rhythm, one that Milyi had already mastered. Now she moved through the motions automatically, felt the music nearly before it was played, and found herself longing to make it more intricate. The beats pulled at her, suggesting something complex and exciting, and Milyi's body yearned to go deeper into the rhythm.

 “Milyi!” Teachers shout came from way too close.

 She jumped awake, found her instructor standing over her. “What are you doing?”

Milyi balked, unsure what she'd done wrong. Fear gripped her and she forced down tears. She had tried almost every other suitable trade. What could she possibly do if she got thrown out of dancing class? What would grandmother say?

“I’m sorry.” She choked out the words. “I didn’t mean to get distracted.”

Teacher leaned closer.  “We mustn’t improvise, Milyi.”

The word “improvise” came out with well-painted distaste. Milyi only nodded, her efforts centered on not crying. She had no idea what she'd  been doing, but it was obviously the wrong thing. To her surprise Teacher only nodded, rose up tall again and turned away.

“Class dismissed!” She picked up her drum, and walked quickly from them.

The rest of the class stood stunned. Milyi could feel their eyes on her, could hear them whispering. Her tears sank into a knot in her stomach, and she turned on one heel and marched from the clearing.

She walked home far more slowly than she'd left. What if Teacher had gone straight to Grandma? Her steps dragged and her shoulders slumped as she approached their tent. Class had let out early. There would be questions to answer if she came home so soon.

Women’s voices drifted through the walls of their tent, and she stopped without entering. If Teacher had come straight to Milyi's grandmother, the trouble would not be small. She slipped along the side of the dwelling and around the back corner and listened to the conversation through the canvas.

To her relief, it was not Teacher her grandmother entertained but the old woman's friend, Maiga. Milyi sat down on the cool, packed earth. She tilted her head to the side and focused on spying. Grandma would be peevish after one of Maiga's visits, but at least it wouldn't be aimed at her.

Milyi picked at a strand of grass. The brittle tufts scattered in clumps between the tents and the paths of bare dirt scrubbed clean by passing feet.  They lived at the very edge of the village, where the hard pack met the soft wild of the jungle. Milyi stared into the fronds, the moist contrast that circled the village, that provided the abundance they enjoyed, and let the women’s conversation fade into the background.

An afternoon breeze caused the branches to dance and slap against one another. The shadows made kaleidoscopic patterns on the ground. As she watched them shift, a distinct shape flashed between them--soft lines held together in an intricate, geometric design. Milyi twisted to see what cast the image and jumped to her feet with a pounding heart.

The tiny strands glimmered near the ground directly behind her. She inched backwards, followed their path with wide eyes. The base of their tent harbored a small web, it's shadow made huge by the slanting sun. It hovered, taut and sparkling, a few inches above the ground, anchored by the canvas wall and a rigid strand of grass.

Milyi held her breath. She searched the web for its maker, shuddering at the thought of how close she'd been. She'd nearly sat in the thing. If she'd leaned a little too far in that direction, if she'd let her hair swing out just enough...

Before she could squeal, however, the spider appeared. The creeping sensation faded and Milyi watched the fat-bodied little creature slide down one of the supporting strands and wriggle into the center of its net. Barely the size of a kuli nut, the harmless, yellow web-weavers were more a nuisance than a danger. Still, Milyi snatched a rock and prepared to smash it.
The sound of her own name stopped her mid-strike. The stone hung above the web's maker, a suspended sentence. Milyi cocked her head and listened more intently to the voices behind the wall.

“…hips are rounding out. It is time to think of these things.”

 “Milyi is young yet.” Grandmother argued, but her voice had less force than usual. “She has time still before we need to worry about marriage.”
“She will be a young woman before you think.” Maiga sounded insistent, oddly excited. “What will you do, Ogria? Let her live here in shame with an old woman for a husband?”
Milyi cringed and heard Grandmother snort grumpily at Maiga. The stupid woman. Grandmother will tell her I am too young for such things. Grandmother will set her straight.
“Old Nagu in the Southern village has a grandson Milyi’s age." Grandmother announced this with a note of conspiracy. "He will have her when she’s ready.”
“You’ve arranged it already!”
“I am not so neglectful as you think.” The scorn and triumph in her guardian’s voice held terrifying certainty. Grandmother had given the final word, put Maiga in her place, and Milyi was sure that she spoke the truth. She'd been promised to some strange boy. She would have a husband.

She put the rock down and stared at the fat spider atop its silken platform. A rebellious whisper told her not to kill it. She imagined letting it linger here, right under Grandmother’s nose. Then she would have a secret too.
The round body moved. Tiny legs swept this way and that, and the firm abdomen bobbed and turned in place. Milyi had never watched a spider spin, but then, spiders didn’t last longer than it took to smash them. She leaned in closer, curious.
Small appendages at the end of the body waved to and fro, placing more silk across the web’s strands. The abdomen bounced and spun while the many legs worked at the job of weaving. In its own way, the little spider was dancing.

 Feet pounded between the tents, and Milyi jumped as though she'd been caught stealing from the cooking pot. She shifted her position to block the spider and her work from view. A small figure burst around the corner of the tent in a flutter of red skirts and long, unbraided hair.

 Milyi’s friend, Rani, was two years her junior. She had yet to choose a life skill or to attend the village classes. Her days still centered around dreaming, playing with the other children, and waiting for Milyi to get home.

 Milyi placed her hands on her hips and her voice snapped, “What are you thinking, tearing around like that?”

 Rani stopped short, and the smile washed from her round face. “Milyi?”

 Milyi couldn’t stop herself  “You’re too big to have your hair loose. You look silly.” She turned sideways, crossed her arms and looked at Rani in an echo of her Teacher's scorn. Only when Rani squealed did she realize her mistake.

 “Spider! Milyi, its right by you!” The little girl dove for the stone. She snatched it from Milyi's hand, raised it high, and aimed.
Milyi’s leg shot out, disturbed the tall grass anchoring the web, and shook the spider loose. It disappeared into the shadows on the ground. For a second Rani only stared. Her mouth hung open, and a dark line formed between her large eyes. Then her gaze dropped to the grass, her eyes scanned for the errant arachnid. It already skittered across the smooth dirt. Rani raised her weapon again.

 “Rani, no!” The words slipped from Milyi’s mouth.

 Her friend froze. “It's forbidden to let a spider live.” Rani spoke the words, but Milyi heard it in her mind, over and over. Everyone knew it, and nothing she could say would explain her hesitation. She blinked off tears as her friend raised the rock again.

 Before she could bring it down for the kill, Milyi dove forward and snatched it from her fingers. They stared at one another until Rani’s face crumpled. Her nose scrunched and water pooled in her brown eyes.
“Rani, I’m sorry.”
 Even as Milyi spoke the little girl’s face shifted toward defiance. Rani's foot darted out and down, and the distinct squishing sound of spidery death answered. Rani glowered for only a moment, and then she stuck out her tongue, turned, and bolted back down the path. 

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