By: Genevieve Oudens
View all Genevieve Oudens's works
Sasha stroked her fingers through the silky black hair of the tall mare. It whinnied and nodded towards the barn behind them. “I know,” Sasha sighed. “I’m cold too, but Dieter isn’t home yet, and he told me not to go to bed before he got here.” She knew the horse couldn’t understand her, let alone hear her at all, but she needed to fill the dry silence with something. Her short messy hair tangled in the beckoning wind. She thought of her parents’ ashes tumbling down a hill somewhere, maybe with the wind, or maybe scattered at the bottom of the ocean, drowning for the second time. She stepped closer to the horse, hugging the sides of her neck and listening for the soothing rhythm of her peaceful breaths, waiting for Dieter to come with his conch shell, calling for her, as if she were an animal too.
Dieter was her brother. He was 19 and worked as a fishmonger in the town market, catching the fish in the night and selling them during the day. He would come home late to the barn behind the house that used to be theirs but that burned, and together they would eat whatever Dieter could steal from the market. But Sasha wasn’t allowed to be alone at home while Dieter was out. Their house burned the last time she was.
Dieter hadn’t come home yet and it was beginning to grow dark, and Sasha had been afraid. She had crept to the cellar and lit a single candle, but had forgotten to turn it out before she fell asleep waiting for her brother. In the middle of the night, she had awoken, startled by the screams of her brother, and looking around she had suddenly realized the house was in flames.
Dieter never really forgave her. Standing by her horse, she heard the moaning bellow of his shell and turned, tugging lightly on the horse’s reins. “Ebony, it’s time.”
They lived in a village called Arlesache, in a land called Leicher, under the dominion of a demanding selfish ruler, Igneus Charabeld. Sasha and Dieter had been orphans for three years, since Charabeld ordered all the adults in the western part of Leicher to fight with the north in an unnecessary war. Their parents had set out on a ship to avoid having to fight. But they never came back. A year ago, the monk in charge of the village had come with news that the war had been lost, and every ship from Arlesache had been bombed and capsized.
Arlesache was now just a town of children, young adults, and those still alive over 60. Sasha and Dieter supposedly had a grandmother in Arlesache, but they hadn’t seen or heard from her since they were little, and they assumed she was long dead. Sasha herself was thirteen years old, and she knew it wasn’t long before she would have to take up work.
Before the war, every kid in Arlesache started to work at 18. With all the grownups gone, the head monk had moved it down to 15. He had also sent out letters to every family in Arlesache, apologizing for his rational decision.
The head monk, known as Brother Reedly, was a timid man who hated to make choices, and most people thought he was crazy. He really didn’t know a thing about leadership. Before the war, he was a quiet secluded monk at the Arlesache Monastery. Every monk but Brother Reedly was perfectly ready to fight for (quote King Charabeld) “their very lives.” Reedly hid in the steeple of the church for two years while the war played out. For the past year, he had spent his time forwarding orders from the king to the citizens of Arlesache and running the entire Monastery by himself. Some said they’d even seen him talking to the plain air in front of him.
Like Reedly, the entire town was trying to forget the war and move on like it didn’t happen, but letting go was hard. Sasha wondered every night exactly how her parents had died. She would try to clear each gruesome image from her head, but the scenes would swirl around her like a storm. Just the night before, she had woken sweaty from a nightmare on her scratchy bed of hay, screaming for Dieter.
During the day, Sasha would walk around with her horse, Ebony, and visit the small library by the shore, to see if they had any new books. Sasha enjoyed reading; she was able to sink into another story and forget the small trapped world she was living in. Recently she had read a book about three kids who left their world for a little bit, to rescue their father and see what was out there. When they came back, almost nothing had changed. Sasha begged to know if there was anything out there, besides Arlesache, besides Leicher, somewhere far away, somewhere exotic and beautiful. But only the best sailors and equestrians ever dared to leave Leicher, to leave safety.
Sasha spent a lot of her time thinking about Larosia DeMosli. She was the first person to ever leave Arlesache and come back safe. She had set out with a fleet of three ships: The Emperor, The Cogra, and The Denautor. “The weather is scorching and the wind is slow. We have traveled three weeks on the sea and found only the water, the sun and our own manure.” Sasha knew the story by heart. It wasn’t quite heroic, but she treasured it like it was her own. DeMosli had a handwritten diary that she had left to her husband, Griesoro, who ran the tiny library, when she died. Griesoro decided to give it to Sasha to read. She brought it back the next day in perfect condition after reading it six times, all night long. She had checked it out nine times since, each time returning to the tiny library shortly after to say hello to old Greisoro and the calm blue sea.
Today happened to be one of those days. It was a cold rainy morning, wet enough that Ms. Welters, the teacher, had postponed morning lessons until later that afternoon, but not too wet that Sasha was afraid to venture outside. She bathed and dressed and climbed down from the barn loft that she and Dieter slept on. Below, Dieter had set a small table he had won at a town auction between two barrels of hay. Two cups of freshly squeezed milk were set at the table. Dieter was pacing around the arrangement, with a nervous look on his face. Walking over to the table, Sasha said, “Good morning, Dieter.” He said nothing but instead grunted quietly.
“What’s wrong?” Sasha asked with concern.
“Oh, nothing you should worry about,” he sighed.
“Dieter…” Sasha insisted.
Dieter sighed again and said, “Brother Reedly thinks I should set out as an explorer. That I’ve got the knowledge and skills and that fishing won’t get me anywhere.”
“Oh, that’s amazing!” Sasha exclaimed. “What if you were to find something? You’d be famous!”
“Amazing?” Dieter asked, baffled. “What about you? I can’t just leave you…”
Sasha rolled her eyes. “Of course you can. I can live on my own. I know how to milk Obi and write and read; I could write you letters! And I promise to learn to ride Ebony!”
“I know, I know. Oh- I forgot to mention. I would probably be taking Ebony…”
“Oh, Dieter you can’t! She’s my friend!”
“Ok, well if I do go, I’ll see if Brother Reedly has a different horse I could use,”
“Thank you.” Sasha sighed.
She sat down on one of the hay barrels and began to drink from a foggy glass. The milk tasted fresh, as it often did, and left a small streak of white along Sasha’s lip. She brushed it off hurriedly, ready to see what the day would bring.
“Sasha?” Dieter asked as she was just about to leave. “Do you really think I should go?” Sasha looked at Dieter with slight frustration. “I don’t think, I know.”
As Sasha walked briskly through the rain, holding the book close to her shirt under her coat, she began to realize what Dieter leaving would actually mean. She would have to tend to the cow and horse on her own, make enough money to get food, and find a job to make money in the first place. She had already been thinking about a job, but not with the mindset that one might soon be needed. She thought of jobs she might enjoy, but not one seemed to amuse her. She could be a sewer, she thought, but she would have to learn sew, and besides her fingers were big and could never thread a needle.
She walked along thinking to herself and stepping around muddy puddles until she had reached the library. It was over a hill from her barn, resting between two very old trees that used to make up a whole forest, before the ocean decided to wash it away. It was only one room, with a fireplace in one corner, and a ladder leading up to the nook that Griesoro slept in.
Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with some of the only books in the town. Sasha had read each one. As she stepped inside the library, sweet smells of eggnog and gingerbread surrounded her. She saw Griesoro standing on the right side of the room, at a small table next to the fireplace. A pot was hanging over the fire and warm cookies were sitting on a tray on the table. Griesoro was a short man, shorter than Sasha by an inch or two, with white hair and eyes bluer than the sea. His shoulders bounced when he heard Sasha approaching. Turning around he said, “Good morning, Sasha! It’s great to see you! I was just about to head outside. It looks wonderful out there!”
Sasha frowned. “It’s raining, sir; heavily.”
Griesoro’s smile stayed wide across his face.“My point exactly! Oh don’t you just love days like these!”
Sasha gave a small smile. “I suppose.”
Griesoro pulled out the pot and set it by the cookies. “Well, I mustn’t waste time, it’ll be gone soon. Stay as long as you like. Have a cookie! I didn’t expect visitors… no one else seems to love storms as I do. Rain just gives the whole world a special fragrance, you know?”
Sasha nodded. Griesoro grabbed a brown jacket from the door, slipped into a pair of brown and red moccasins, and left. Sasha walked to where he had been standing, shutting the door he had forgotten to close. In the distance, she could hear him laughing loudly into the wind. He was a strange man, she thought, but always nice to her.
She took DeMosli’s diary from under her jacket, relieved to not be holding it anymore. She set it where she knew it belonged, between to a copy of The Cornicopius, the law book in Liecher, that Sasha had already read for school, and Duels: A History. Surprised at her hunger, she gratefully took a cookie and headed for the door. Breathing in one last smell of the room, she stepped outside.
The rain was still pouring down. Expectant to see Greisoro, Sasha turned to either side, but he was nowhere to be seen. She assumed he had probably gone down to the water, to wade in the reflection of the sky.
Eating her cookie, she headed down the path home. After a few minutes, she realized she had not pulled up her hood. Stopping, she pulled it up over her head, so her hair jutted out at the sides. Pulling it off again, she realized it was just the same with it off. The cold drops of water seemed more like a gift now than a curse. Throwing her hands up in the sky, she began to laugh. Her laughter rang through the silence around her, alone in the air aside from the quiet pitter of the rain. Water soaked her as she stood still, but she didn’t care. As the rain poured around her, she felt untouchable. The rain was not falling down to her. She was flying up into the rain.
The next day was much warmer and the sun was visible through the clouds. Sasha assumed Ms. Welters would hold class today so she quickly said goodbye to Deiter and left the barn for town. She lived about half a mile outside the main town, closer than Greisoro, but far enough that she had to cross a small creek on her way. Each day she dropped a stone in the stream and ran down beside it until she couldn’t see it anymore. Today she couldn’t find a smooth stone and instead used a shell she grabbed from the bank. It flowed down faster than the stones, lifted by the light current. She could barely keep up with it but wished it good luck as it sped away. She knew all creeks went to the ocean. She hoped her stones would get there someday.
Sasha arrived at the schoolroom just on time, hanging her coat on the coat stand and finding her seat in the third row. She sat down on her bench and said hello to a boy named Alan Vichet that she never paid any attention to. He was extremely skinny, had black shiny hair like tar that fell on his shoulders, and his nose was crooked from the most recent time he had broken it, playing war in the woods with Skeet Mertes and seven of his brothers. Like Skeet, Alan’s family had only moved to Arlesache three years ago, in the middle of the war, to find a quiet place to settle down and forget about their kids while they played like bears in the woods all day. Alan and Skeet only sometimes came to school, and when they did, they never really focused and looked more and more like sticks each time. They were never given any respect, as folks were always complaining about their chair Jek Mertles had broken or their bread Zolof Vichet had used as a sponge.
As students filed into the room, Sasha noticed that on every desk were two brand new blue books titled The World: A History and A Journey Through The Art of Mathematics. They were the same two books each kid was given at school, but shiny and new.
“Good Morning! I hope you’re all doing well!” Ms. Welters squealed in a squeaky voice. Ms. Welters was actually grandma Welters but had had to take over for her daughter after she left for the war. She was old, but seemed as alive as a newborn. She wore shawls and dresses with flower embroidery and skirts that dragged on the floor. She was always enthusiastic and perfectly nice, except when Skeet or Alan acted up.
“It seems from the murmur I must address the books on each student’s desk. King Charabeld graciously supplied all the school rooms in Liecher with brand new school books! Isn’t it marvelous? We haven’t had new books in almost twenty years! Aren’t they just beauties!”
“But even the King doesn’t have enough silver to buy so many books with,” said Dephedria Weison quietly from the very back row.
“Well, I think it was a sort of gift to apologize for the war,” Ms. Welters said promptly. “Anywho, it means we have no use for our old books now. You may do whatever you like with them. They may not be in the best condition, but they’re still bound tight!”
Sasha was thrilled. She had never owned a book of her own, let alone two. She wondered what she might do with them. She could make leaf prints on every page, or better yet, fold the pages into little paper animals!
“I’ll throw mine in a tree and see if the eagles want to learn!” Alan joked. The class burst into laughter. Sasha’s smile turned to a frown.
“Settle down, now, kids! I want you to take this seriously! The King trusts us with these books and I want to know that every student in this room will uphold that trust!”
The class had settled down and was silently waiting to be told what to do.
“Ok, students, we are starting a new topic today! Open your brand new ‘The World’ books to page forty-nine at the start of the chapter titled Rulers and Riches. We are starting a unit on rulership!” Sasha sighed and turned to the chapter. Ms. Welters didn’t know that her daughter had already taught this chapter just before the war. Sasha knew it would only really talk about the king and how rich he was. She had no interest in the world of the man who had led her parents to death. She didn’t complain though, because she was in the oldest group of kids in the school and she knew of only one other kid who had been in school before the war, Laicee Egret, who could be taught something nine times and would never understand. Sasha knew Laicee would become just like all the women in Arlesache. Housewives with little freedom.
Already tangled in boredom, Sasha took a stone from her pocket and began to scratch a poem on the leg of her desk.
Predictable was he who bought one loaf each Saturday
The folk would eat one loaf each week and so the town would say
Here is your one loaf of bread and goodmorning to thee
Before he had the chance to say I’d rather like some tea
Startled awake by her own breathing, Sasha realized she was alone in the classroom as school had ended and all the students had left. She jolted up, grabbing her coat from the stand and running quickly outside. She was worried it was late and Dieter might wonder where she was. She smiled in relief as she stepped outside into bright sunlight. Before she could step more than a foot, she felt hands pushing her over into the dirt and grimaced at the sound of a dirty snicker. She wiped her face with her sleeve and looked up to see Alan standing over her with a sneer on his face. She sighed, disgusted at the old trick. Blocking her eyes from the sun with her hands, she heard Skeet approach. She stood up quickly, not wanting to be ridiculed again.
“Alan, what are you doing?” Skeet asked. “Wow, did you see that? She didn’t even see me!” Alan chuckled as his sneer grew.
“Shut up, Alan, let her be.” Skeet almost appeared angry. Alan turned to face him.
“Since when were you such a pretty boy?”
“Just go beat up your brother or something,” Skeet scolded.
Alan looked astonished. “What’s up with you? Whatever, see you tomorrow, I guess.” Alan sighed and left.
Sasha had gotten up and brushed off her jacket and was walking away.
“Sasha, wait.” She rolled her eyes, not wanting to waste the day. Coming up behind her, Skeet said, “I heard your brother’s leaving.”
Sasha nodded. “Maybe. What do you want?”
Skeet rolled his eyes.
“I’m not the jerk you think I am,” Sasha sighed.
“Yes you are. And you didn’t answer my question.” They had come over the hill and were now almost to the stream. Sasha stopped. She knew Skeet lived nowhere near here. After too long he said,
“Just thought with your brother gone you might need some protection, you know, someone to keep you safe.” Skeet offered out a grime covered hand with a small smile. Sasha was furious. She instead punched him in the face, hard, like four years of anger had taught her to do. He stumbled back a few feet, knocking into a tree.
“What the hell was that for?!” He spat on the ground and wiped his bloody eye with the back of his hand.
“WHY DOES EVERYONE KEEP TREATING ME LIKE A BABY!?” She screamed. She turned away from the scene behind her, running through the woods like a wolf, flying over the stream, not stopping to pick up a stone. She was angry but felt a pure happiness fill her. She couldn’t remember the last time she had stood up to Alan or Skeet or any of the woods boys. It felt good. But as she left the woods her face was damp with tears that sparkled in the noon sun.
Sasha hadn’t punched anyone since her parents left. Just her wall, in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep and awake was her only refuge. She hated to fight when it was what her parents died for. Nothing in her life was as important as a war. She could figure out all her own problems well enough, and that was really all that mattered. She couldn’t help but cry a little, breaking the promise she had made so many nights ago, the day her brother came running from the market, shirt soaked with tears, hugging her in sadness, regret and fear, all alone in a world full of monsters.
To be Continued…