Renneyeh’s first daughter is a ways out in the empty acres of scrub and dried grass that lie between house and road and school downriver, but Nulba’s eagle eye can spot her. Tight on the ground, red marks on the body. There are no brackens in her fist.
Pualan, he been irregular of a thirdday for this reason.
It’s a minute while Nulba says nothing but feels the pounding in her veins, and first daughter stares at the ground, face hid but insides showing.
“Back an’ we go.”
“He told me here, hard-like. So I sent the sisters away by road.”
Frightened but not entirely. Already thinking the sisters too young for what she is, thinking maybe it’s a badge of some fine kind; in the first daughter there is that pride-shame to make Nulba rage. Nearing the house, the girl slips inside rather than be pulled out into the field, but Renneyeh sees and comes to Nulba.
“You gone, what for? She out of the school?”
“She out to stay.” Nulba pulls her hoe out of the earth, metal hot and strong. “That girl never a child anymore. Nothing more of noting or figuring or games in her head.”
Renneyeh doesn’t hear. “Now you comfort in the sun! Maybe she sick or idling, but she go on back. There been –”
“You-on try an’ have Pualan send her back, an’ maybe then she go, but she won’t get nothing of noting or figuring.” Nulba spits. “Ill thing for girl-uns to be lost of their school, an’ not even twelve.”
Renneyeh shakes her head, still pleasant. “You have haze troubles?”
“Girl never a child anymore, an’ hardly twelve. You go in an’ see.”
“Now, still daylight an’ I got plenty left at my end of the field. Let the daughter be,” Renneyeh says, and she’s smiling but she’s looking at nothing but earth, not the sun nor the sky nor Nulba.
That tips the tide of furious sadness and Nulba says what she might not have said otherwise, mad under the sun.
“Maybe only when child birthing child, an’ you see the life’s danger, you’ll have the wrong in it.”
Renneyeh goes back down the furrow. For Nulba, that full, round look of hers is no less for being from behind.
The house can’t be let alone as night comes down and the girl-uns pile in, Nulba and Renneyeh knocking their boots off on the porch and coming inside. It’s only when Renneyeh sees the look in her first daughter that she sees what’s written on legs and face and abdomen, and never sooner.
My words heat noise, all these years? Never mind the sun, Nulba might have said, were they sitting on the porch at high noon, it’s those under your roof that drives you mad.
Renneyeh shifts and shifts through the night. Nulba is wide awake. In the morning, the flesh around Renneyeh’s eyes is sinking in on itself.
“She’ll be, she’ll be.” Talking of her first daughter, as if it were all the same. But Renneyeh is not the same, and the first daughter does not go to school, and Pualan does not come to the house of the next many thirddays.
“’Least he be shamed to come here.”
The first daughter does not come around the corner of the house, up out of the dust from some game or another, when they are talking on the porch. She stays far back in the house except for when she slips out, and the porch is silence punctuated by talk rather than the other way around. Smooth warm weight disappears from Renneyeh’s frame, hands locked together.
“Shamed? Fair if he comes, if he takes up his thirddays again.”
Nulba, heavier than the heaviest of irons, shakes her head in disgust. “Come for the both of you? What say you there?” It is like the lashing of a tired, stubborn beast, trying to drive it the way that seems right. A task fit to make the heart ache. “Many Murca men or hardly none, it’s never been good for us like it’s been for them, but it’s in how we make it. It’s not in the stars, it’s in how we make it. Better to have none of them. Can’t move the fields but can keep him unwelcome.”
The answer is a long time coming and it is a murmur.
“It’s all of us-uns under the sun, men an’ daughters too.”
At midautumn harvest the first daughter, belly swelling outsized to her body, comes out to work in the field. There’s no more talking on the porch; if it were all to Nulba, there’d be no speaking again until the house was emptied of daughters. Renneyeh, though, she’s mellowing as the angles of her cheeks sharpen, as her body loses its warmth at night. Nulba knows that soon Renneyeh will start talking because she must, making fuss and touching the belly. So the painful quiet straining for sound makes Nulba leave the porch entirely.
She squats on her heels a ways off from the house and the field. The maize is stunted when drawn against the maize of her first memories; however, this year is to be counted a fair growth. The ’tatoes are less certain, dotting the wiggling furrows to which Nulba and Renneyeh and first daughter apply their hoes and struggle against the weeds.
The circling screech of a hunting bird, gaunt to translucence overhead, is why Nulba does not see the shadow on the road as it approaches the house. She comes back to the house to find thunder in the silence.
No longer is there any sign of Renneyeh’s soon making fuss. She is on the porch, standing rather than sitting, and facing the wall with her mouth nearly against the wood, wood-blind. She is still, such that Nulba guesses even before noticing the first daughter, covering herself and coming back up from hands and knees in the field, chin and palms and legs and belly dirtied through. Bruises cupping her shoulders all the way around to the shoulder blades.
A shuddering, from Renneyeh or her first daughter or both. A mad heat under the sun.
The sickle is new, for the full-blown maize. Even when us-uns were closest to bein’ like them, when the water an’ the food an’ the marvel things were plenty all over, never were they counting us as we always been counting them.
The road is eaten up under Nulba’s feet and the blazing sun, the sun which casts the longest shadow. It is a languid shadow that moves slowly, sated, and despised all the more because it does not turn around quickly enough. Nulba is thick limbs and solid body and the handle of the sickle is all she needs.
When Nulba returns she plants the sickle beneath the porch and sits down like always. After some time Renneyeh backs away from the wall, and, creaking like an old house, she sits by Nulba.
The first daughter is nowhere to be seen. She has gone inside the house. Renneyeh knows, and its a heavy knowing that sits between the two of them, who have sat on the porch all these years.
“Heavy blood crime. Hardly no men in Murca anymore.”
Renneyeh’s voice is scarcely to be heard. It can’t be grief and it can’t be peace while shadows are still lying on the field, the first daughter is bruised and swelling, and the bones show in Renneyeh’s knees. But it’s something tired-fresh and smoothed in the voice.
“Maybe,” Nulba says, easy at last. The long cicada is dead now that the nights are cooling, but the hunting bird makes its call again and Nulba decides to take the sling later, to bring down that gaunt bird and see its meat plump Renneyeh’s arms.
“Maybe-not. Maybe it’s only another who’s gone ‘cross the sea on his cobble boat.”