The Bone Road
“We can stop now. She’s dead,” Rhona’s voice was steady and calm. There was no need to say the name aloud. There had been three of them in the wagon: herself, Jak her son and her mother Ilis. All three of them had known it was near.
The wagon slowed and creaked to a stop. Jak sprang down and ran to the byaks’ heads, lowered the harness bar from their chests to their feet and pulled the feedbags over their muzzles. The massive and placid byaks wouldn’t climb over the bar, and the feedbags would keep them busy. Jak had halted on a long downhill slope, and he yanked the chocks out from the racks under the wagon and placed them under each huge wheel, stomping them back hard with his boots. His head didn’t show over the wheels. Jak was well grown for twelve circles old, but the wagon was taller than two men standing on each other’s shoulders and wide enough to carry a family, their belongings, and their trade goods.
Before them, the road wound down the hill and, turning, followed the coast of Deo to the south. The mountains loomed to the left, the land rising away toward the highest peak, true Deo, invisible in the morning haze. The land nearest the Road was treeless grassland, sloping to the sea. Wild bant sprouted green but this early in the spring most of the grass was still winter brown.
Rhona climbed out the back of the wagon and pulled out the long tent pole slung beneath. By the time she had it in place, Jak was there to help with its mate. In camp the tent poles increased the living area, but this morning they were upended and crossed against the rear of the wagon, forming an X. Jak’s hands shook; she saw him scrub at his face with his sleeve. She gripped his shoulder. The Deom did not acknowledge public grief at a death; a named person was alive and then dead, it was the way of things, but unvoiced sympathy would not damage his pride.
Carrying shovels, they paced out the grave in front of the byaks’ muzzles and started to dig, directly into the crown of the Bone Road. Rhona had been awake all night, sitting by the dying woman, talking when her mother wanted to talk, or silently waiting while she dozed. They’d camped earlier than usual, but once the sun rose Ilis had become restless and insisted they move on. She’d wanted to die traveling on the Road. She had gotten her wish.
Rhona’s eyes stung with tiredness and the dust from digging. Once they broke through the crust of hardened dirt it should go easier. Without comment, Jak brought out the pickaxe and pounded through the surface, moving evenly around the grave. He was a good boy, intelligent and tough. Rhona concentrated on the digging. It was hard but it was a relief to be active. It helped calm her thoughts.
One moment her mother had been walking at the wagon’s side, in the next she had wavered and crumpled to the ground. Rhona and Jak had carried her into the wagon and Rhona had done what she could. One side of her mother’s body was limp and unresponsive, chill, her mouth drooled and the eye sagged closed. She could not speak clearly. Rhona had expected her death at any moment, and when it delayed and her mother was able to form words, her own dread had come. To her surprise, the worst had not happened, nor the best, and she was left with this strange third thing. She pushed away her mother’s last round and her own promise; she’d give them due time later, after her last obligation to the remains was fulfilled.
They had the grave half dug when two wagons pulled up to either side and stopped level with theirs. A man climbed down from each, brought their shovels and started to dig. Rhona greeted them formally and received their names in return, made Jak sit and rest on the nearby milestone and drink some water from the butt, courteously offering a dipper to each helper. With three males digging it didn’t take long to deepen and shape the grave. Rhona left them to it and climbed back into the wagon. She stripped the body and washed it. Despite all her training—her mother was gone, this was refuse, good for only one thing—she bent and pressed her lips to the dead forehead.
I will do as you asked, I promise.Although I don’t understand.
She bent and lifted the body. Rhona was a big woman, generously built, as her mother had been in her maturity, but the body was shrunken, and lighter than she expected. She was able to carry the corpse out of the wagon and to the side of the open grave.
The men stood back, in respect. Rhona dropped the corpse into the grave. She climbed down beside it and straightened it. Wid were buried on their backs, eyes wide open, legs straight and pointing down the Bone Road, arms at their sides. She climbed out unassisted. Jak offered her a shovel and she pushed the blade into the dirt mound and tossed the first shovelful into the corpse’s face. Jak waited until the face was covered before starting to fill in the grave. The strangers had stiffened his resolve to behave as a proper Wid man and Rhona could see no signs of tears. She was proud of him.
With the body covered with a loose layer of dirt, Rhona and Jak climbed into the hole and packed the soil down with their feet. They climbed out, the others started to shovel the dirt back, all of them working steadily, tamping the soil as they went. When they were done, the grave was hard-packed down, with a small mound of extra soil piled on top. A day or so in the sun and the dirt would fade and match the rest of the Road. Her mother would be nowhere and everywhere. The Road encircled Deo.
“Our thanks to you both. May the blessings of the Deom go with you,” Rhona said.
The men bowed to her and returned to their wagons, scraping the dirt from their shovels. They did not pull away but sat waiting until Rhona and Jak replaced the tent poles, unchocked the wheels, and readied the byaks. Jak climbed onto the high wagon seat and unwound the long leather reins. He nodded to his mother.
Rhona stood on the Road at the head of the grave. She had removed her boots. She took a deep breath and stepped forward onto her mother’s grave, feeling her feet pressing into the earth, walking down the Bone Road. Behind her, Jak gave her a small time of silence before slapped the reins on the byaks’ backs. The wagon creaked into motion. When he was level with her, she reached up for his hand and pulled herself onto the broad seat. The other wagons gave them two lengths for courtesy, and then they urged their byaks forward.
Rhona kept the wagon moving past milestone after milestone until the late afternoon. They were headed full south by then, moving down the long west coast of Deo. Here, the road ran high on the cliff tops with the ocean at their feet. Trees were appearing on the landward side, first singly and then in small groves. Seabirds spiraled overhead, disputing territory with flocks of golden and brown becks. Looking out to sea over her right shoulder, Rhona saw the calm ocean stretching into the unfathomable unknown. Occasionally, a skuller moved on the surface of the water, long whip-like tentacles pushing the thin body rhythmically forward. Skullers traveled alone, feeding on minifish and any larger fish unwise enough to be swept into their feeding jaws, but if one found sizable prey other skullers would appear as if called, all of them combining to kill and eat. Rhona and her mother had once watched from these very cliffs, helpless, as skullers had surrounded and destroyed a small cargo boat, capsizing it by wrapping their tentacles around the hull and pulling it down. The crew hadn’t lasted long. Rhona recalled the screams echoing across the water, and shuddered. Travel on the Bone Road might be slow, and goods trekked around the mountains expensive, but after that day she’d never questioned why most Deom stayed stubbornly on land.
This day had been windy and cold for spring. When she saw the next campsite marker, she touched Jak’s shoulder.
“Enough,” she said. “Turn in at this one.”
Here on the west coast, the inner campsites were Zeosil, the outer ones on the ocean side of the road, Wid. Members of each were welcome, but in case of dispute the decision of the Senior member of the site moiety would be law. This campsite was Wid, larger than some, and set on a wide bluff with a fine view of the ocean. There were about fifteen wagons scattered about, some pulled close to each other, some at a distance. Rhona pointed to an empty place down away from the marked spring; she had no desire for company and going for water was a time-tested excuse for visiting.
After they unharnessed the byaks, fed them and secured the tethers, Rhona sent Jak to the spring while she stacked the byak chips and lit the evening fire in the camp pit. Dried dung burned hot and clean. Like all traveling Deom, both Wid and Zeosil, Rhona had automatically collected chips during the day’s travel.
Waiting for the fire to burn down to the cooking coals, Rhona returned to the byaks and pulled the coarse metal rake through their winter coats. Some of the fluffy dense undercoat came off, not much now, but a promise of more as the weather warmed and they traveled south. She’d rake them every evening and store the hair in net sacks under the wagon, ready to barter to a weaver. The life of the traveling Deom would be impossible without the huge hauling beasts; every part had a use.
Jak returned with water. They cooked and ate. It felt strange and lonely cooking for two instead of three; the campsite felt vacant and abandoned without Ilis. Jak washed the few dishes and stacked them neatly back in their places in the wagon. Rhona pulled a shawl around her shoulders, wrapped her hands around her cup of tea, and stared into the fire. Jak didn’t settle beside her, and she looked up to see him watching her. She could hear children’s voices from a distant wagon.
“Go. I’m fine,” she smiled at him. “You did well today. Your grandmother would have said the same. I’ll watch the sunset and turn in early.” He gave her a small smile and ran off.
Ilis’s favorite cup had been deep green, with a glazed pattern of yellow leaves. Rhona ran her thumb over the leaves and thought about her mother. She’d given birth to Rhona in the way of the Wid, to an unnamed Zeosil sire. Her child-debt to the Deom paid, she’d had no more children, and she had never partnered. Once Rhona was weaned and walking, Ilis had left her in the Wid compound at Kissing Bridge, joined with a caravan of traders and started walking the circle around the mountain continent of Deo. The high points of Rhona’s childhood were her mother’s returns to Bridge, loaded with gifts and laughing. When Rhona was eleven, she announced she would travel with her mother and they’d done shorter and longer trips out of Bridge ever since. Jak hadn’t been as patient and obedient as Rhona; he’d joined them when he was eight, ignoring all commands to remain in the school compound until he was older. He and his grandmother had been very close and Rhona was thankful she’d given in. Ilis had had her grandson with her up to the end. It had been a valuable gift for both of them.
She was thinking about Jak, Rhona realized, so she wouldn’t have to think about her mother’s last rounds. If asked, Rhona would have said her mother’s life had no secrets. Ilis traded and sold goods from the wagon, she had fame as a midwife and as a safe abortionist; she collected and swapped herbs with a wide range of acquaintances, Wid, Zeosil and even the occasional Shun. Living the way of the Deom had pleased her and Rhona knew she had wanted the same life for her daughter and grandson.
The wind blew in from the ocean, making the fire dance. Rhona watched the fog advance on the land as the sun set behind the dense gray cloud. Footsteps crunched on the rock and a man approached her campfire. He bowed.
“Dama? I am Joshi, of the Wid, I met you on the road today.” Broad-shouldered, his fair hair was a rarity amongst the Deom. It was freshly combed and tied back. His eyes were hazel, also a rarity, and all in all this was a good-looking man. “May I sit at the fire?”
One should always be courteous, Ilis used to say, if possible. Rhona sighed internally, careful to keep any irritation from her face and voice. She reminded herself she was a woman alone now, so this was going to happen more often. She would deal with it. Her life had changed with Jak’s conception, and with her mother’s death, it had changed again, completing another turn of the circle.
“Yes, I remember. I am Rhona. Sit, Damo. You will take tea?”
He accepted a cup; then pulled a flask from his jacket. “Arrack? No?” He poured from the flask into his cup and sipped. Rhona waited.
“Your boy is well grown.”
“I have a daughter, with the Zeosil; she must be almost fifteen circles now.” Pause. “Our debt is paid.”
“So it is,” Rhona agreed. “But there are other responsibilities, other burdens.”
“Ah.” He sipped. “Two are better than one, for a circle. Or for a night.”
“As I said, other burdens are on me. You are an honorable man, Joshi, and I thank you for your company.”
He finished his drink in one swallow, rose, and handed her back the cup. She was careful not to touch his hand. He bowed shortly to her, and his footsteps crunched away. Rhona sighed, and waited until she couldn’t hear them anymore, then said, “It is none of your business, you know. No matter how curious you are, hiding and listening is rude.”
Jak appeared from behind the wagon. “If I hadn’t been here, would you have gone to his wagon?” As usual, he ignored her maternal commentary.
“No. What I said was true. And I do not like arrack.”
Jak laughed. “When I am a man, I will not take arrack to help me with a woman.”
“Of course not,” Rhona agreed. “You will have them waiting in line as you pull into the camp each night.”
“Yes. And I will say, you and you and you! Come to my wagon now!”
“That will certainly impress everyone. Then, when you wake up with the wagon covered with byak dung, what will you do?”
Jak grinned. It was the traditional women’s punishment for a man who didn’t accept refusal. “Have you ever seen that? Really, not just a tale?”
“Oh, yes.” Rhona stopped smiling. “Except he’d gone past bullying. He forced a girl.” She looked at her son in the firelight, at the size of him and the promise of strength. He had her hair, dark and wavy, her deep brown eyes, and the shape of her hands. His promised height and breath of chest would be from his sire. He needed to hear this. “They set the dung afire.”
“They burned the wagon!” His eyes were wide and horrified. He looked at their wagon with all their possessions, their little world, and she could see him imagining the loss.
“Yes. And he was in it.” She’d been fifteen, aware of the whispers and the covert meetings and she’d sat in the shadows listening to the camp decide. Ilis had spoken for it, had been in the inner circle. They had all contributed fuel, stacking it against the wheels, quietly leading the byaks away, isolating the wagon. It had burned like a huge pyramid of fire against the sky. The heat had driven them far back but the screams were still audible. “He was drunk, he was asleep; he didn’t wake up until it was too late.” She shivered, pulling her shawl around her.
“What happened to the girl?” Jak asked.
“He’d injured her, but she recovered. She found a Zeosil man, they paid the debt together, and they left the Road.”
“That’s good.” Jak sighed. “Grandmother told me how a true man asks a woman. Joshi did well. I was only teasing, you know.”
“I know.” She rose, poured the last of the tea on the fire, and ruffled his hair. “Why did you come back early? No one your age in camp?”
Jak frowned. “I forgot … I was going to tell you. There’s a Zeosil woman having a baby down the other end of camp. They told us to go somewhere else, but we stopped and went to our wagons … I was going to tell you, but that man was here and I forgot.” He eyed her uneasily.
“There were women with her?” He nodded. “Then if they need help, they will ask.”
The symbol for the midwife, a circle resting between two almost intersecting lines, and the divvy symbol of an open hand were cut into the wood of the wagon. Jak had painted the hand Wid blue. Someone would have seen them when they pulled into camp. If not, Joshi had certainly seen them. If they needed her, and Deo trust they didn’t, someone would come.
“See what I found, Rhona.” Jak held up a smooth ovoid object, about the size of his head. It had a large jagged opening and the inside was hollow and empty.
Rhona laughed. “A Deo’s egg! That’s one of the best ones I’ve seen. Finding one means luck on the Road.”
“It’s not a real egg, is it? What comes out of it?” Jak turned it over dubiously.
“I don’t know what they are; you can find them on the Road anywhere, although they are more common in the south or north. But they’re pottery, Jak, not a real egg. Whatever they are, they’re always broken; I’ve never seen one without a hole. It’s been a long day. Put out the fire and dowse the lamp. With luck, we’ll both get some sleep.”
But the luck didn’t last. Rhona woke instantly at the tap on the side of the wagon.
“You are the divvy? We ask you to come.”
“A moment.” Rhona lit the small lamp she kept ready by her bed, pulled her long, loose trousers back on, and yanked the tunic over her head. She laced up her boots. Jak stirred as she combed her hair and bound it back with her scarf. “Go back to sleep.” She slung a small bag over her shoulder and holding the lamp, she climbed out of the wagon. It was near dawn. The stars were faded in the sky; the fog had blown away in the night, and the wind was still moving. The lamp flame flickered and she adjusted the shutter.
The man waiting for her was old. What little hair remained on his head was gray and his eyes were sunken with fatigue. He bowed stiffly. “Dama, I thank you for coming. I am Ore of the Wid, comine with Alanna of the Zeosil, and our eldest daughter is Erinna.” A comine was a cross-moiety life partnership between a Zeosil and a Wid, the commonest and most approved kind, although the term was rarely used in speech. Most Deom simply said partner. Ore must be very traditional.
“Erinna was in labor? Her child is born?”
He nodded. He didn’t ask how she knew, but he’d asked for the divvy, not the midwife. The bag on her back was probably useless, but she might make his daughter more comfortable. He had a lamp also and they walked together up the length of the camp toward the spring. There was a knot of wagons pulled close together; of course all the Zeosil would prefer to be near each other in a Wid camp. Late as it was, there were people at the campfire but no one spoke to Rhona as she approached. Divvys were necessary, respected, but not popular, especially at moments such as this.
Rhona climbed into the wagon without the offered assistance of Ore’s arm. The midwife was cleaning up and she stood aside for Rhona and the old man and then exited the wagon with a bundle of stained cloth under her arm. She did not meet Rhona’s eyes as they passed, a bad sign. The new mother was on a bed in the back, with her mother seated next to her. The baby was a wrapped bundle laid in the curve of the young mother’s arm.
Rhona said her name, and received theirs in return. She asked if there was a Zeosil divvy in camp, a formality since she would not be here if there was, but she wanted their obligation to her stated. She did not want to be accused of meddling. These rituals over, and her services officially requested by the new grandmother, the baby was unwrapped and presented to her. A boy.
Rhona took a deep breath and laid her right hand on the baby’s chest. She kept it there for three breaths, feeling the baby’s life. The mother’s feverish eyes never left her face, but her mother did not watch. She kept her gaze on her daughter.
Rhona pulled her hand back. This was the hardest moment, harder by far than what would come after. “The baby is a Shun.”
The girl’s head turned on the pillow. She gave a weak wail and tears poured down her face. Her mother asked, stiffly, “Dama, will the child live?”
Rhona wished, as she had wished every day since she was thirteen circles old, that this gift had not come to her. “I do not believe so. Not past the three days.” And she had never been mistaken yet, but she did not tell them that. Shun could live, many did, but this one would not. Rhona could feel the death coming. A baby had to live three days to be named. This one would not.
Gulping through her tears, Erinna said, “I could take him to a Shun Refuge.”
Rhona shook her head. “No. There is nothing you can do.”
The grandmother, her face a stone, turned on the crying girl in the bed. “A shame to us all, that you should bear a Shun. You swore the father was Wid.” The girl cried harder, her body shaking and she stretched out her arms for the child. Rhona, still holding the baby, looked at Ore.
Ore asked for himself, “The baby will die?”
“Yes. Within a day, or two. Certainly by three days. He will not eat, but he will cry for food. It will be hard.”
“I ask your help in our shame, Dama,” he said.
His daughter wailed, “No!” but her mother hushed her.
The grandmother brought Rhona a clean and battered basin. She took the baby and lowered him gently into it. The new mother stopped wailing, but tears rolled down her face. Her mother said to her, “Watch, and remember. In the old time, you would have had to do this yourself before the Seniors.”
Rhona pulled the thin knife from her bag, said, “The way of the Deom” and cut the baby’s throat.
Ore took the basin and its contents away. Rhona looked to the young mother, rested her hand gently on the girl’s forehead, smoothed back the damp hair, and frowned. Pulling the blanket away from her chest, she looked at her skin and laid her hand gently over her heart and against the side of her throat. The girl continued crying, ignoring her touch.
Rhona pulled the grim old woman away from the bed, and out of the wagon. Ore joined them.
“Your daughter has a fever sickness, from carrying the Shun. She may die unless she is given good care.” She pulled her bag open. Ore nodded grimly. He had not seemed surprised, so Erinna had fooled her mother but not her father. Or perhaps her mother had wanted to be fooled. What could she do, after all? The man was long gone. If Erinna had been cautious and taken the man to a divvy before coupling, this would not have happened. A man’s moiety and a woman’s moiety had to be different to assure a live birth. But it was likely a casual encounter back on the Road, and Erinna had taken him at his worthless word, and not bothered to drink bant tea as a precaution. The pregnancy must have been difficult enough to make her parents suspicious. At least the lucky girl would probably live—Shun babies had caused the death of the mother before this.
Rhona laid out the packets of herbs, and gave them instructions. The midwife returned from the campfire, where she’d been boiling the birth rags to clean them, and Rhona repeated the instructions. When the dreary little class was over, Ore straightened.
“We thank you, Dama, for your help. May you walk in the way of the Deom.”
He frowned at Alanna. Recalled to courtesy, she bowed and repeated the formal farewell and was echoed by the midwife. Ore counted out the coppers into Rhona’s hand. She disliked accepting after divvying a dying Shun, but not to accept would insult them. As exhausted as if she’d helped at a hard birth, Rhona left them by the fire and walked slowly back to her wagon. Too much death today.
Wearily, she sank onto the wagon step. She looked up at the dim stars. Soon it would be dawn. She had divvyed babies up and down the Bone Road since she was thirteen circles old. Rebelliously, she wondered what it would be like to never divvy again. She wondered also, looking up at the stars, if they were other worlds? Worlds where any man and any woman could simply mate and have a living, fertile child? A world where the all-important moiety would not matter? A world, in fact, with no need for someone to say yes, you are Wid and you are Zeosil and your child will live. A world, somewhere, with no need for a divvy.
Rhona heard her mother’s voice, echoing out of the past in Ilis’s favorite fireside tale. “When the Deom came out of the mountain of Deo, circles ago past counting, no one knew if the child of any mating would live. Some children lived, and grew, and bred in their turn. Many more died. Then, in our most desperate time, when it seemed the Deom were doomed to fill the Bone Road with their children and then die themselves, a woman was gifted as a divvy. And she divided them into Wid and Zeosil, and said ‘mate to each other’. And so the divvy gift came and the Deom survived.”
Sighing, she heaved herself to her feet and got into the wagon. Jak was still asleep and she resisted the temptation to touch him and feel his life. She pulled her quilt over her shoulders and tried to sleep before the dawn came.