Igms issue 3, p.7
IGMS Issue 3, page 7
So with her elbows and legs, she gently rolled onto her side and pushed herself to her feet. She rocked for a moment, letting the blood in her system redistribute itself, her vision growing dim before returning to normal. Xoco pushed aside the hanging tapa door and stepped out into the mid-morning sun.
Women were singing, chanting. Their voices ghosted from a different part of the village. Xoco could hear their words punctuated with the whacks of beaters as they struck mulberry bark to make cloth.
The Shaman sat in the shade of the main cookhouse, the spiritual paint of the mountain still on his body, black tattooed lines, like lightning, scrawled across his cheeks. His scalp was freshly shaved but for the center strip from which his long hair hung low.
In his arms, Sea and Sky lay awkwardly, fused at the back, one looking in toward the Shaman's chest, the other peering away. Little mouths quivered with the force of their mewling.
Xoco's arms prickled at seeing him with the babies, but she measured his actions for a moment, watched the way the corners of his mouth curled up in a tight smile. He was almost fatherly the way he held them, comforted them, rocked them back and forth. He dangled a copper medallion in front of their faces, trying to entice their attentions with its gleaming surface. His head turned; he spotted her and his smile vanished.
"Come here," he said.
Xoco walked gingerly forward, hands held at her stomach as though to prevent her organs from falling out. She heard the distant voices of men back in the forest, burning and cutting the inedible plants to make room for the nutritious ones.
"They're hungry," he said. The Shaman lifted the children. He handed them to Xoco who struggled to find a position that would both make them comfortable and wouldn't suffocate either.
Her breath caught at the up-close sight of two babies stitched together at the back. Xoco had heard of twins born with parts of themselves in the other but she had thought those were nothing more than tales told at gatherings, around cook fires late at night. But she couldn't be surprised that her children were so mythical as to be joined. They would free her and her people; they were gods. Gods should be unique.
Sitting in the shade, Xoco placed a breast at the mouth of a babe and winced as the child latched on. She didn't even know which child was Sky, which was Sea.
As though he knew her thoughts, the Shaman spoke. "That one that now suckles, that is Sea." He stood before her. "What do you mean by naming these children after the gods? Such immodesty can do no good. You will bring their disfavor on this village."
"I didn't mean to offend," said Xoco.
"What will you do if the gods, in their scorn, no longer grant me the power to summon the fishes or to cause the berries and the maize to flourish? Will you explain to the people that it was your vanity that causes their hunger?"
I will explain all that and more, thought Xoco. I will explain how the gods sent these children as a blessing for us, to be rid of you and be finished with our dependence on you. Xoco decided to say nothing; it was a mistake.
The Shaman slapped her with the back of his hand. Xoco felt the familiar sting of knuckles against her cheekbone and while the blow itself was manageable, the way it jostled her tender stomach stung far worse.
"You will answer me."
"I will explain it to them. I will explain that it is my fault."
He placed a hand under her chin, lifted her gaze to meet his. "Aren't you going to welcome your father back home?" His voice was quiet, but full of insinuation.
"You just returned from the mountain. Even now it still prays," said Xoco. And she gestured up to the clouds of smoke that raised ever-skyward from the wound in the mountain's peak. "Surely we have enough to sup on for now."
Then the Shaman leaned back and with his hand resting on his stomach, he barked a loud laugh. At Xoco's fear? Her vulnerability?
"Fine," he said. "But the village is growing. There are more and more mouths to feed. We may have to increase our efforts." He began to walk away, off toward the banyans, but then he stopped and turned back. "And get Lavria to change your poultice. I can smell the blood from here." Then he was gone.
Xoco sat a while. She turned the twins around and fed Sky, all the while playing with Sea's hand, rubbing her arm, keeping her occupied while her sister ate. When they were finished and Xoco found the strength to move, she walked to the women's building. Her mother and Lavria sat grinding grain with a stone to make course flour and other women struck mulberry bark, placing the thin, finished sheets in buckets to soak. As soon as they saw her, they paused and stood, clucking their tongues.
"You should not be up running about, Child," said Mother. "You need to sleep. Those babies nearly drained all the blood right out of you." With a practiced hand, she lifted the children from Xoco's arms, smiled at them, made soft cooing noises.
Lavria lifted the front of Xoco's sarong, pulled at the blood-soaked cloth tied there. When she peeled it away, she saw the cut was an angry red and puffy.
"We have to watch this closely," said Lavria. "It could turn bad. For now, we will change this cloth and keep the wound clean."
Xoco noticed the women eyeing the joined babies. When they realized that she had noticed them, they busied themselves with beating the tapa, silently this time.
"It's a shame about them," said Lavria. "They'll never live full lives. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," snapped Xoco. "I'm not. Their bodies were an intentional act of the gods. There is a purpose in all things."
Then a realization came to Xoco. "I want to tattoo them."
"They're too young," said Mother. "You must wait until they are old enough to realize what it is they're receiving. Besides, it may be too much to take for young ones like this."
"Lavria doesn't think they will survive very long. I want them to receive my mark while they are alive so that they will be sealed to me."
And so Lavria retrieved the sharpened tusk which Xoco used to tap her mark into the wrinkled sides of the twins. They didn't cry. They didn't make a single noise. The other women murmured about this amongst themselves at great length.
When the shape was finished, Xoco gently rubbed soot and sap into the design, providing its color. After, she poured sun-warmed water over it and observed her work and was pleased. On each of the twins' sides was half of Xoco's heart such that it joined where they did, at their backs.
There were screams from the other end of Kimpana; the roars of hunters and warriors filled the air. Xoco held the twins close to her body. She heard the sounds of wood striking metal striking wood. More screams.
"Gambi," hissed Lavria.
Around the corner ran a team of Gambi warriors, ten or twelve, clubs and spears dancing, faces painted in bloodroot paste. They spotted Xoco's children and started toward them with singular intent.
"Run. Find the Shaman," said Xoco before staggering in the opposite direction, her unsteady legs threatening to buckle. She didn't look to see if Mother and Lavria followed her instructions. She didn't have time; there were two infants that were relying on her.
Into the woods Xoco hobbled. The pain below her waist grew more intense with her motion, but she didn't slow. She twisted around the tall slender trees, passed by the brush and brambles with spines and star-shaped fruit. Xoco could only think of the beach, of the fish there that could help.
"Sea and Sky, guide my path," she whispered.
The sounds of pursuit clamored behind her. She heard men shouting, branches snapping and breaking underfoot. Xoco felt blood seeping into the cloth over her cut as she aggravated it again. And with the pain came something else. Like liquid smoke coating her body, she felt the gods' presence come over her, fall down onto her head and then shoulders, cascading to her feet.
A faint but recognizable path emerged in the jungle. Vines, limbs pulled away as she approached, revealing fresh and uncluttered ground, only to close and mesh together again as she passed. Xoco made it to the beach well ahead of the hunters.
Splashing through the surf, her head snapped from side to side, searching the water for anything alive. She found nothing but black sand and murky waters until a dead bass washed ashore at her feet. Though she'd never be able to divine an answer with it, some have said that even rotten, lifeless flesh held a certain power. There was great suffering to be harvested from death.
She leaned over, ignoring the firestorm in her belly, cradling her children the best she could in one arm, and plucked the slippery fish from the beach.
Xoco squeezed the creature in her hand, felt it squish between her fingertips while chanting: "Sea and Sky, lend us your protection. Just as you saw our need at the hour of delivery, now too we require your assistance."
A fog of gnats, of flies, of sickly dark smoke rose out of the carcass in her hand. It began to gather and thicken as four Gambi warriors charged out of the bushes. Xoco could make out terrified noises drifting back from Kimpana.
And without waiting, the swarm of insects and malice charged at the nearest warrior. It engulfed his head and beneath the shroud of their bodies, Xoco could make out blood burgeoning where they nipped and bit and clawed with unearthly skill. Flesh fell away as they gnawed on his skull. The horror of the sight was paralleled only by the wail that escaped his mouth.
The other three warriors were aghast. Fueled by fear and newfound hatred, they turned to Xoco. The dead fish, the gods, they had done her bidding and still it was not enough.
The nearest warrior swung a club that smashed against her temple. A blinding white light. And then darkness.
Movement. Xoco's body shifted and pitched, as though being carried. Light stained red through her eyelids. Then she heard her children crying and the world flooded back in on her. When she opened her eyes, Xoco saw the sky -- blue with great, billowing clouds, carefree, distant.
She realized that she was being carried. Her arms and legs were bound with rope of woven tapa. Another encircled her midsection and secured her to the makeshift litter she rode, carried by two Gambi warriors. When she tried to speak, to ask permission to feed her babies, Xoco tasted cloth in her mouth. She could only moan and half-shout to let them know that she was awake.
Her efforts garnered no response. Sea and Sky were getting angry at being ignored, and Xoco's breasts leaked from their mewling.
The Gambi at her head said something to the four other warriors that trailed behind. One of them held her children with obvious disdain. Xoco wanted to break his back.
It wasn't until she lifted her head, to fully glare at him, that she observed where they were taking her. The terrain had steadily become less green, more inclined. Volcanic rocks appeared in greater numbers and she noticed their elevation was increasing. It was a path none of the Kimpana were allowed to walk, but one Xoco had envisioned in a thousand dreams. They were taking her up the mountain of prayers.
Xoco tried to imagine what they intended to do with her, why they had come into Kimpana looking specifically for her and the babies. From her experience with the Shaman, Xoco could only think of one thing that these warriors would want with her. But they must know she had just born twin children. Surely she wasn't the most attractive object of their desire; surely there was someone more suitable. And then Xoco felt immense shame. She had come dangerously close to wishing her torment on another woman of the village and that was something she would curse no Kimpana with. The village had turned away from her family's pain in order to benefit from the Shaman's works, but no woman deserved to be any man's pet, to be used to satisfy the flesh and then discarded.
The Gambi were conversing now. Xoco wished she knew what they were saying. When Sea let out a cry of renewed strength, the lead Gambi growled something at the man holding the twins who then quite scornfully started to bounce them up and down, attempting to calm them. It only riled them more.
A warrior leaned over Xoco and scowled. "Shut up," he stammered. Xoco first thought he was talking to her, but then she realized he was referring to the children. He wanted her to shut them up. She gestured with her bound hands and the warrior scowled and cut the rope. Xoco reached for her gag, but the man holding the litter's base shook his head dangerously at her in warning.
Xoco shifted a bit, slid the rope down to her waist so she could sit up, if awkwardly, and then motioned for the warrior to hand her Sea and Sky. They walked in silence as Xoco fed the twins.
Xoco did her best to focus on her children. She played with their tiny fists, ran her fingers delicately through their soft tufts of hair, inhaled their sweet fragrance. If she never saw them again, Xoco intended to take every last detail of the twins with her into the afterlife.
The day was spent traversing the switchbacks. They led her up the mountain backwards so she couldn't see what approached. Near sunset, when the sun painted the sky with blood and fire, they reached the summit. For some time Xoco had heard the sounds of struggling, a female voice, drifting down the slope and now they grew louder. It set her on edge. Whatever they planned to do to her, they had already begun on someone else. Xoco wondered if anyone would ever find her up there, if they'd even think to look. It probably wouldn't be until the Shaman returned to the mountain, to summon the elements that would again feed their village for a time. He'd find her body splayed and battered, feasted upon by maggots.
But when they turned her around, Xoco saw that the Shaman was already there. He leaned over a woman, a fist full of her hair in his hand, a dagger in the other. It only took one scream for Xoco to realize who lay on the ground; she pulled the gag from her mouth.
Xoco slipped free of the rope about her waist and stood. "Mother!"
A Gambi turned and kicked Xoco in the back driving the wind from her lungs, knocking her to her knees. It was all Xoco could do to keep the twins in her grip. Miraculously, they didn't cry. They just lay in her arms in divine peace, oblivious to the danger around them, counting on their mother's protection.
"Welcome, daughter," said the Shaman. Then he spat what sounded like an order to the Gambi holding Xoco. A warrior untied her feet and released her. Since when could he speak Gambi, and why where they obeying his commands?
"Mother, are you all right?" asked Xoco. She looked to where her mother lay on the ground, her head pitched forward so that the hair not clenched in the Shaman's fist hung in a curtain to the ground, blocking her face. Soft moans issued from her direction. All the while, the Shaman grinned above her.
"What are you doing with these Gambi warriors, Shaman?" Her head pounded; her abdomen burned. Xoco gathered the strength from deep within. "They harass our village, steal our chickens and tools, all the while you pray to the gods to save us from them."
His grin melted into a sneer. "I explain myself to no one, Daughter. The Kimpana, the Gambi, you, your children," then he looked down at Mother who quivered beneath him, "this creature. You are all mine, my possessions. And a master does not explain his actions to slaves."
His confidence was terrifying. But Xoco had her children to fight for, a village of oppressed people.
"You are finished, Shaman. The gods have sent Sea and Sky to finish you."
The Shaman laughed, a mirthless and cold sound. "You speak of your vision? That pathetic prayer on the beach? Did you actually mean to deify those abominations in your arms?"
Though Xoco said nothing, she could not keep the surprise from showing on her face.
"Oh yes," he said. "I know. You play with fish and fire, surely you didn't think to keep such a thing from me?"
Mother raised her head; her eyes found Xoco's. Her face was withered and worn, old, wrinkled, ravaged by the smooth scars of long-healed burns, devoid of life. Blood gushed from her mouth like an upturned cup. And then Xoco realized why Mother hadn't said anything -- her tongue had been cut out.
The Shaman pushed the point of his dagger through Mother's throat, sliding the length of it into flesh, hilt deep, until pink metal poked through the bac
"No!" Xoco screamed and lurched forward. Gambi warriors held her by the arms. Xoco watched as the Shaman chanted soundlessly; she saw the last fragments of gray dissolve from his hair, she noticed the creases and cracks of his face fill and the skin of his body grow tight and reinvigorated. He was becoming younger.
Without thought, Xoco clutched Sea and Sky to her chest tighter than before, rocking them, cocooning them with her body.
Blood had splattered onto the Shaman's face and he wiped at it with the back of his forearm, spreading the crimson fluid in a sinister smear across his cheeks. His eyes were large, white, and wild, like a cougar finding an antelope, an eagle spotting a trout. Drunk with bloodlust, he sauntered to where Xoco kneeled. She hardly noticed the burning below her waist. It was such a distant, insignificant wound.
"They'll come looking for us," said Xoco. "When we don't return, they'll send a search party of spearmen."
Xoco felt the power emanating from him, the cold heat of a malformed prayer. It wasn't the sweet caresses that had come to her when she spoke with the gods. It was a harsh, unforgiving presence that prickled her skin.
He grabbed Xoco by the chin, as he often did. His voice was almost sweet, sincere. "I am the hunting party. After the Gambi took you, as I asked them to, I assured the Kimpana that I would come and find you. Tragically, I was too late as your mother already died. You, too, unfortunately didn't make it. Run through by a Gambi spear."
There came chuckling behind her.
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