Ixa would always remember the red string her grandmother tied around her wrist. The other end was tied around her grandmother’s wrist so that she wouldn’t wander off as she worked in the fields. Every morning without fail she would tie the simple knot before they left their one room house. Her grandmother never spoke a tender thought or showed loving sentiment, but this moment when her attention was fully on Ixa was something she treasured.
The other children stared when she and her grandmother walked past. They got to play a small distance from the rice paddies, but Ixa knew that in her own way she was helping her family. Sometimes she would get to pull the rice plants out of the water into a little pile.
Still she wished she could join her peers in their games. Their jovial movements caught her eyes often as they bounced from one end of the fields to another. But her grandmother was strict and never allowed her to wander enough to pull on the red string without a beating. She hated her working hands being jerked away from her because if Ixa’s curiosity. She’d learned from the way the people stared at her cheeks – reddened not just because of embarrassment – to be quiet and disciplined.
She always knew that her grandmother loved her. She showed her love in very quiet ways. When she’d twisted her ankle climbing a tree, her grandmother made a small crutch for her to walk about in. She found the crutch next to her bed in the morning. Nothing was said – she wasn’t even scolded – but each day she got an extra serving of Porridge. Even when she broke her crutch from overuse, she would find that it was fixed in the morning.
She wasn’t a woman of many words, Ixa had only ever heard her say, “Come,” “Stop,” “Sit there,” and “Hush.” But she showed her love through her actions.
The children who mocked her would never understand.
Her grandfather on the other hand was a cold, dispassionate man. Unable to work because of his back, he laid in bed all day. He only got up to play dice two houses over once a week. When the weather was bad Ixa would stay home with her grandfather. He grumbled about the house peeking in cupboards or digging holes into their dirt floor over and over again. Ixa sat with her feet in the hearth and made herself as small as possible. If he caught more than a passing glance at her he would start yelling at her. And her grandmother hated when the neighbors came over to see what was happening. She would have to apologize again and again for being a nuisance.
Soon though she would be out of her grandmother’s care during the days. When the year reset to the first day, she would be required to go to school. The town mistress of Dun held a meeting in Dullery Square, and this year she personally visited all houses that were absent. She looked forward to learning. The two years before, she was marked as an absentee because grandmother didn’t believe in such nonsense. Ixa wondered if it was because her grandmother didn’t know that school was a public service. They didn’t have much money and she assumed that all things given were at a cost, not bothering to inquire whether the assumption was true.
For now Ixa was content to help gather the ripened rice. She loved the smell of brown colored rice that spread through a house on a cold night. They couldn’t afford to cook rice all on its own but stirred it into the porridge where it made the soup less empty.
The brown rice that they grew in Dun was a hardy strand. Although it didn’t taste good enough for human consumption, the thick leaves that grew with the panicles absorbed what little sunlight there was in Dun and that was enough to be grown. Most in Dun, unable to afford anything else, ate the brown rice. But outside the town they were used as fodder for boars and cows.
About two weeks before she was to go to school, a strange man walked down the road among the rows of rice paddies. Usually Ixa wouldn’t have noticed, but the ever prevalent mists were gone thanks to the rare sunshine. His black coat and pants stood out among the varying shades of brown that was Dun.
Ixa was surprised when the man stopped at their door and was let in by her grandfather. His grumpy wrinkles were smoothed into a smile for the first time she’d seen in her life. Her grandmother had been watching the man cautiously and when she saw him disappear into the dark house, she gripped the string and pulled the little girl over.
The man was standing and when they walked inside, his hushed voice ceased and he turned to look at Ixa.
“This is she?” he inquired. His accent was none like she’d ever heard. Not even the town mistress spoke so crisply.
“Yes,” said her grandmother as her grandfather nodded on.
In one step he crossed the room to stand in front of the girl. Without warning he raised his hand and slapped her. Before the hand collided she flinched, willing herself not to dodge, and went sprawling onto the uneven floor.
“Sit up,” the man commanded. Ixa scrambled back and sat in the way her grandmother had taught her. Her knees were together on the ground and her behind was resting on her heels.
“Good, she’s obedient,” he said. “I would not take her otherwise.” He stepped closer and opened her mouth to study her teeth. When he was done, he moved onto her eyes, ears, scalp, and the rest of her muscles and bone structure.
“She seems healthy enough,” he finished, breaking the silence. Ixa wondered if this was to see if this was some kind of examination for school.
He drew an extravagant velvet bag and handed it to her grandmother’s ready hand. “She will do.” Ixa looked up in exuberance. She couldn’t wait to learn with the rest of her peers and create some friends. Her toes curled excitedly and she teetered on the outer pads of her feet, creating a bobbing motion.
The man continued, “We will contact you should she turn out unsatisfactory. However, after a month you can assume that we have formally accepted her and she will not be returned.” Ixa’s hopeful eyes suddenly clouded over.
Her family nodded in response and Ixa’s grandmother promptly tore the red string in one motion. When the man took her hand, the useless red string dangled to her elbows.
“Come,” the man said. And Ixa followed without resistance, but her head stayed on her grandmother. They turned away. There wasn’t much in the house they could busy themselves with so the action was awkward as they stared at nothing.
When they walked far enough away, he slapped her again. She looked up at his studying eyes. Satisfied, he turned and continued his progression. In his strong hand her small one weakened. He could have been holding a bundle of rice blades.
Ixa had never travelled too far from home, so she had been swallowing the sight of new rice paddies and different homes. Now she kept her eyes on the ground. Wherever she was going, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. She wondered if there would be any children there. Ixa really hoped this man wouldn’t become her father. She looked at the footprints embedded in the road. She recognized the prints with a lighter left foot. That was Lonry, the hobbling old man. She saw a mess of small prints and picked out Rickett’s. He was the one that was too excited that he always walked around on tiptoes. The town mistress’s donkey left the most interesting circular print. Ixa glanced back and saw that she wasn’t leaving any prints on the stiff dirt. rain hadn’t fallen in two weeks, which was rare for Dun. That was part of the reason why the harvesting had commenced early. The water was receding and the insects were closing in.
They soon reached the high road, which was wider and paved. A large black car waited. The metal casing of the car shined like water. The dirt didn’t collect on the smooth and dark surface. This metal wasn’t like the hinges used on the town’s doors or the water well. They always had a texture. Sometimes it was the way they were made, like hammer marks. Other times it was the dent ofill-fitted metal and too much pressure. Most of the time it was rust. Its wires and metal innards were opened to the sky. With the amount of rain that constantly fell in Dun, this machine would have rusted years ago.
Observing the gears and the oddly snaking exhaust pipe, Ixa thought I hope it’s not too far. I’d like to be able to visit grandmother.
The man opened the thin door and lifted her in. Ixa gasped. Fabric stretched leisurely across every surface. Cherry wood colored leather was used on the seats. A softer black cloth Ixa found unfamiliar covered the ceiling. Each contour of the car was perfectly traced with the fabric and Ixa found each arc and slope to be artistic and beautiful. Intricate gold knobs and odd handles decorated the inside of each door. It was the richest room she had ever been in. Once seated, Ixa lifted her legs so that her dirt crushed feet didn’t touch the thick rug. Already she had made footsteps that trailed from the door.
She sat guiltily expecting a reprimand for making a mess. Ixa didn’t know that that dirt could stain.
The man seemed unconcerned and tapped his knuckles to the window, signaling for the car to start. In the separate compartment, the driver rumbled the car alive and slowly proceeded forward. As it picked up speed, Ixa looked back at the dirt road they were leaving behind and stared at the churning dust that billowed away from the car.
It wasn’t long before they passed all the neighboring towns and reached a city. She noticed the roofs first. Many of them had wooden boards that were covered by straw and rocks. Some of them had hardened clay pieces arranged in rows that overlapped. Since the clay was green and the houses themselves were brown, the houses looked like an imitation of a fat stubby tree.
The closer they got the center of the city, she noticed some of the houses were painted white. It must have been paint. She couldn’t think of any material that would have been so bright and colorless.
This must be the city Raat. She thought. The tall buildings were the size of six men and sturdy. The pillars of these buildings were burrowed into the ground. They looked like they wouldn’t have to worry about getting blown over in a high storm. She liked the painted houses best. Ixa thought that the artistry of the white houses were fit for a king.
She continued glancing around her vantage point, frequently turning her head to peak through a different window. She did note that the one thing she didn’t like about the city was the roads. The dirt here was packed down with rocks. When a cart or car road over them, it made a terrible racket that made Ixa cover her ears. It was only redeemed by the fact that the ride was smoother. She noticed that there were no puddles or gaping holes in the paths.
The car stopped in front of an eatery with a stray dog sitting in front. Three men dressed in a black uniform walked out and climbed into the car. They nodded to the man but ignored Ixa entirely.
She was disappointed when the car continued out of Raat. She’d always wanted to see the city and this brief glance was not enough. She wondered what type of treats they sold at their food carts. One glance at a candied fruit stick would have been enough. She wished now that she could have talked to the town mistress when she’d happily shared about her experiences with the other children. About once a year she made the trip to the city and each time she brought back a stick heaped with sugar coated fruit rinds. This past year she’d devoted from the orange and lemons brought back candied watermelon. The pink and white striped pieces on the stick disappeared in the hands of the hungry children and reappeared as crumbs of sugar on their faces. The town mistress had looked at her then. But her grandmother pulled on the string and she hurried to move the pile of rice forward before it was out of reach.
Pushing the memory out of her mind, she settled back down to her seat and stared at the mountains ahead. Her stomach grumbled but she silenced it by scrunching and twisting her middle. She willed herself to forget the thoughts of food. She had to sleep without food on many occasions before now.
But, she thought to herself, I always remembered to drink a lot of water.
Ixa cleared her throat. “Mister, may I have some water please?”
The men looked at her and the first one brusquely said, “Sir. Never the word mister unless you can attach a name to it. Address men you don’t know with sir.”
Cheeks brightening, Ixa said, “Yes, sir.” And looked down at her hands. She didn’t know what to do and how to interact with these men. They didn’t seem to want any interaction, but then why would they take her if they truly didn’t?
To her surprise, he nodded at one of the stern men that joined them at the eatery. One of them produced a worn down waterskin. This looked to be the man’s personal supply. Ixa was crestfallen. Since she didn’t know how long they would be traveling, she thought it unwise to drink more than a mouthful. Carefully, she set her lips to the end of the opening and tried to take a small swallow without significantly affecting the weight of the skin.
“Thank you,” she said licking as much water from her upper lip as she could. The man took it back without question and continued to stare above her head and through the window.
The first man, who she now understood as the one in charge, cocked his head to the side and studied her. She turned in her seat to continue staring out of the window and watch the mountains come closer.
When the sun was almost gone, they were deep in the mountains. Ixa had enjoyed the ease with which the car could climb at mountain that would have taken weeks to travel by foot or cart. The trees were thicker and abundant here. She was delighted to spot a raccoon dashing through the forest and was stunned when she saw deer running away from the road, its brown tail flashing the white underside.
Eventually they stopped at a lonely inn somewhere in the mountains. There were a few other shops that surrounded the area, but they were cutoff from any towns. A few people were on the balconies smoking a pipe or walking about in the courtyard in the partially open courtyard. The four men exited the car, only the first man turned back to lift her out of the machine (most likely to ensure that she made as little imprints of dirt as possible). The car drove a short ways and disappeared around the back of the establishment. Ixa shivered in the cool breeze. The man took her hand and together the group headed towards the inviting interior.
Ixa was so eager to rest from the presence of her traveling companions that she could have slept on that very ground and been comfortable. Somehow she knew that her companions wouldn’t approve. She obediently followed them into the two-story inn.
The light was so blinding that Ixa had to keep her eyes closed for a few moments. Back home her grandmother never lit the house after dark except the hearth for cooking. Ixa tried to look at the source of light but they blinded her a second time.
“What are they?” she asked, grateful that the man was holding her hand and leading her through the room.
He was silent for a moment but answered, “It’s a light bulb. You will learn what it is soon if you haven’t already.”
As her eyes adjusted she saw that the room was filled with tables and chairs. Many were occupied with travelers that had sturdier clothes than the farmers they left. They were eating a thick soup that smelled rich with vegetables. They had a jug that they passed around filled with ale. Some of the men played cards in the corner and their laughs were sloppy and boisterous. She was surprised that they were walking on a wooden floors and felt out of place without any shoes like the rest of the guests.
The three stern men were looking of their party were at the counter talking to a thin man with a thin beard. The building master marked something in a ledger and handed over a key in exchange for some coins. As a group they walked up to the second floor, Ixa admired the view that the height gave her. The men looked so much smaller they looked like children. It was the highest place she had ever been.
They walked down the hall away from the common room and opened two doors with the most comfortable looking rooms she’d seen. Her pulse heated with excitement wondering if she would sleep in the puffy bed.
The three men ahead walked to the bigger room. A quick glance told Ixa that there were four rooms in the room. The man still holding her hand in his walked towards the smaller one with two beds. Once they were in the room he let her go and started unfolding a partition and set it around the corner of the room where one of the bed was. The man poured himself a jug of water and splashed his face. He toweled off and took her hand again to walk out the room. They waited for the rest of the men to finish doing the same and walked down towards one of the tables. The driver who had finished parking joined the party just as a barmaid took down their orders.
It didn’t take long for Ixa to finish her soup. The others took it slower and they chatted about the weather.
“Is it true what they say, Dravus?” asked one of the men – the one with a beard.
Dravus, the man who had taken her from her home, said, “Yes, summer could be ending soon.”
They all looked at him, stunned.
“You’ve seen the signs. Fall is coming early this year; this is no coincidence,” he said, taking a good spoonful of soup. He looked undisturbed compared to the rest of the party.
“But where has he gone?” said the one that looked about thirty.
“I wish I could say.”
“There are no leads? Trails?”
“No, it is the king after all.”
“But isn’t there someone else? Surely there’s a family member…”
“No there is no one else other than the boy.”
“But!” sputtered the young one near thirty. “How will we all survive that long?”
“We as a people need to get stronger.”
“And this girl will help? After all you and your team are capable of, this is what you deem worth the most of your time?”
“Yes, I believe my cause is a justified one. She is one of many,” Dravus sighed. “If any of them survive long enough, I would considerer my efforts a success.”
“How many more will you look for?”
“There are five more after I deliver this one.”
They looked at Ixa who jumped at being found caught observing them. She quickly looked down. They seemed incredibly dissatisfied and the man with the beard led them all in a deep draw of ale. Ixa tugged at her red string.
When they were done the party trudged up to their rooms. Ixa fell into her soft bed. Despite her desire to ponder more on what was said at dinner, the warm blankets were so inviting she fell asleep within moments.