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Episode 004:
The First Born




   I sat alone, watching the daylight drain over the horizon. It took with it my hopes and dreams that my husband would return tonight. He'd promised to return long before our baby was born, but it was a promise he could not keep. The mist from the roaring river cooled my feverish skin as I watched the full moon rise in the sky.


   "Arda? What are you doing out here?"


   Even though Sig's appearance next to the river shocked me, I was too numb to react.


   "I'm worried about you."


   I lifted my gaze from the river and looked at my husband's mother. Ever since my mother had passed Sig had been obsessed with me. She never left me alone or gave me privacy. Couldn't she see that I didn't want to see her right now?


   "I must get you back to bed."


   "I'm not coming with you," I mumbled without removing my gaze away from the edge of the river. "I'm going to wait out here until they return. I want to be here to greet my husband."


   "You can't be outside all night waiting for them. We don't even know if they are coming back tonight. I promised both Brahn and your father I would take care of you until they returned."


   Sig pleaded with me to follow, but I couldn't look at her.


   "Please Arda, you need to rest."


   The thought of sleeping again brought a shivering wave of fear over my body. Every hair on my arms and neck stood up. It had been the same every night since my best friend died at childbirth. Prisha visited me and my dreams and every night was worse than the last. Last night, she stood at the foot of my bed and screamed, "Arda! You're next."


   "I'm next," I whispered.


   I looked down at the still pool of water by my feet. My shadowy reflection had lost all color. For the first time, I felt cold.


   "May I sit with you?" asked Sig.




   She sat on the wet stone beside me and stared at the pool of water. There was an awkward silence for a moment before Sig bent over and picked up a small rock from the riverbed. She tossed the stone into the pool, disturbing the reflections and sending ripples in every direction.


   I was agitated. And I couldn't calm down. I only felt peace when the water calmed, I could see each star reflected in the pool, which brought a smile to my face. Sig threw another stone in the pool, destroying the beautiful reflection.


   "Can you stop it?" I shouted.


   "What's wrong, Arda? Would you please tell me what you're thinking? You're pale and wet, and it's cold outside. You have to get back to the house. If your husband were here, he'd tell you to rest."


   For the first time, I looked her in the eyes. If Brahn were here, then matron would be too, and maybe Prisha will be alive. I wouldn't have to pray to the Earth Mother to keep this baby inside until my husband returned.


   "Arda. Are you listening to me?"


   I recoiled and shifted across the cold, damp rock. I needed a little more space between us. The day was gone, and it would be another night without the matron. I stood up, and when my feet landed in the cold water, my whole body shivered, and I went into a contraction. Every muscle tightened at once. I kneeled over in pain and burst into a hot sweat.


   "It's happening," said Sig as she wrapped her arm around me and held me up. "Isn't it?"


   I look down at my pregnant belly. Inside, my child was kicking, wanting to come out and be in the world. I've never seen my stomach so big. It tugged at me, and it hurt me, and made it hard to breathe and to walk.


   "I pray to our Earth Mother to keep my child inside until my husband comes home, but I fear she's going to force me to have my baby tonight."


   "Arda?" Sig held me up and walked me away from the riverbank. "Has your water broke?"


   "Not yet, but the baby is coming. I could feel it."


   I teared up, and my throat swelled. I couldn't hold my thoughts anymore.


   "I can't do this with you; I need the matron. I don't want to bleed out like Prisha."


   "Arda, you can't blame me for Prisha.” she grabbed both my hands before she saw tears and wiped them off my cheek. "You are brave, and our Earth Mother will protect you and your child, and our Heavenly Father will give you strength. But first, you need to eat soup and get some rest."


   The thought of Sig delivering my baby terrified me. Prisha and I had grown up together. She was my best friend, and our children were going to be best friends, and now she was dead. Sig had done all wrong, either the medicine or the delivery. And now Prisha was gone forever.


   "Come on, Arda," said Sig. "Let's get you back home."


   We walked up the bank of the Kur river and through the tall grass. From here, the worn path took us through trees and bushes to the outer edge of the village. The fresh smell of rain and river mist blended with the campfire smoke, making me feel at home.


   Before entering the central court, Sig guided me through several small huts and past a mother and her two children. Most of my fellow villagers sat around the communal fire, where the chief was telling one of his stories.


   "Come on, Arda," said Sig."almost there."


   The torches around the chief's hut entrance lit up the walls with flickering orange red light.

   This hut was the largest structure in the village, and according to the elders, it was the first hut erected in Kurhass. The giant fur elephant tusks framed the hot entrance, and wicker, straw, and dozens of narrow tree trunks lined the roof, forming a point in its center. Shyla pushed open the thick curtain that covered the entrance.


   "It's so hot in here," I mumbled before tumbling to my knees.


   Luckily, Sig was there to keep me from falling on the ground. Two girls at the side of the hut washed old cloth and prepared ointment and fresh soup.


   "Deep breaths Arda," said Sig. "Let me help you to bed."


   A young girl put fresh logs on the fire as Sig walked me to the big bed in the corner. The bed was warm from the fire burning in the back of the hut, but I hesitated for a moment before climbing in.


   "Don't worry," said Sig. "The girls just heated the furs and changed the straw. There are no lice in there."


   I let out a sigh of relief and carefully sat in the bed, allowing Sig to lower me down. My stomach was too big, and it restricted every movement I made. I couldn't lean back or lift myself without rolling onto my side first. But, as bad as I felt, it was good to lie down in a warm bed again. I had no idea how cold I had been until now.


   "Close your eyes, Arda.' whispered Sig. "Get some sleep."


   I was too afraid to sleep, but I did relax and watch the young girls muddle the black and yellow roots in the wooden bowl. Their soft muddling and the soothing voices of the people outside, soon faded into the crackling of the fire, which then faded away entirely.


   The room was silent, and I found myself staring at the thick hide curtain covering the entrance. It was sown from a dozen elk and weighed as much as a man. So it was strange for it to be blowing in the wind as it was. The curtain lifted and settled a couple of times before a gust of wind sent a ripple from the bottom to the top. A hand stuck through and pulled the curtain to the side.


   "Hello?" I whispered. "Is that you, Sig?"


   It was too dark to see the person's face, but it was a woman. I glanced over to see Sig snoring next to me, on my right. And when I looked back at the woman, she was already walking into the hut. To my horror, I could not move my body; I couldn't turn my head to call to the girls, and when I tried to raise my arms, they lay limp at my side. I struggled and fought, but I couldn't move or scream.


   "Who are you? What do you want?"


   That is when the sparkle brought my attention to her left hand. She gripped a copper knife that dripped blood onto the floor.


   "Sig, wake up!"


   "She can't hear you," the woman whispered. "No one can hear you."


   My body was pinned down by the heavy blankets, which seemed to weigh more than the hut itself. I tried to lift my arms, but I might as well have tried to raise a boulder with my mind. I was frozen, and the more I tried to move, the more my arms hurt.


   "You're next, Arda," said the woman from the foot of my bed.


   I'm dreaming. This is a dream, Arda. Wake up!


   When I closed my eyes, I could still see her, as if my eyelids were clear as water.




    The heavy fur blankets ripped off the bed, leaving me exposed and helpless. Only then did I realize that it wasn't Prisha standing before me. She wasn't from Kurhass at all.


   "You… are… next," the woman whispered, raising the copper knife in the air. The thick blood dripped on my bare feet.


   "Please don't kill me!"


   The strange woman knelt over me on the bed and looked into my eyes. The copper blade sliced my stomach open, and pain shot through my body. I watched helplessly, frozen as my stomach poured blood all over the bed.


   "Arda, wake up!"


   My eyes burst open, only to see Sig hovering over me. The fear in her eyes told me the truth. I was dying. Another sharp pain tore through every vein in my body.


   "Arda, look at me!"


   My lungs were exhausted, yet it hurt so much that still, I tried to scream. I couldn't breathe it in. All I could do was sit there with my mouth open in agony.


   "Snap out of it, Arda!"


   Sig slapped me across the face before I gasped and took in a massive breath of air.


   "My baby! She took my baby!"


   "You were dreaming again. Everything is fine, and your baby is safe."


   I looked down and saw Sig rubbing my pregnant belly with a warm cloth soaked in ointments. I was safe. My child was safe. It was all a dream.


   The next day came and went, with no sign of my husband's party. They had been gone since the last full moon, which was no longer than the same trip to Sohass the previous year. However, it felt like an eternity. He had left with most of the other men, including my father and had taken the pack horses with them. They loaded their animals with dried furs and salted meats and fish. They even brought baskets of dried berries and clay pots filled with tallow. They were bringing with them everything the settlers in Sohass craved.


   I'd never been to Sohass or any village outside of Kurhass. But the others spoke of the other settlements when they returned. They were very similar to us in every way, yet still alien. My husband told me that Sohass stood next to a river so wide you couldn't see the other side. It was common knowledge that the trip there took twelve days; but the truck home was double that. The weight in fish carried back was double that of the goods carried there.


   Of course, I knew why they were taking so long. Our matron had been born in Sohass, and so her family lived there. She wished to see them one last time before she was too old to travel. I was told to expect the group to take a little longer than usual. The matron was the most respected elder. When she settled in Kurhass, she brought with her, ointments and healing remedies we had never seen before.


   "What's taking them so long?" I mumbled to myself a little too loudly. I caught the attention of Sig.


   "You know the matron," she said. "She wants to spend time with everyone."


   "I know, but I need her here with me. I'm going to have this baby any day now. She said she would be here when I brought forth my first-born child."


   "She had no idea you were going to go into labor this early," said Sig. "You aren't expected for another half-moon."


   "I know I'm early, but she should have been here. If not for me, then for Prisha."


   "I told you before not to go down this path," snapped Sig.


   She rarely snapped at me, but when she did, she was vicious.


   "You keep blaming me for Prisha's death. But there was nothing I could have done. Too much blood was lost."


   "Our matron could have saved her."


   "I did everything I could," answered Sig. "I have helped the matron deliver seven babies in Kurhass. There was nothing that could have saved Prisha."


   We couldn't reconcile our differences, so we spent most of the day in silence. Another day went by, and still, there was no sign of my husband or the others. So, another night I slept alone in the chief's hut, next to Sig. Occasionally the chief and elders came in to see how I was doing, but they were always respectful to whisper while I was trying to sleep.


   Sig's breathing was so heavy I could hear it in my dreams. When I woke up, she was already holding my hand. When I tried to pull my hand free, a jolt of pain shot up my spine and struck the back of my head.


   "Arda," said Sig. "You're soaking wet."


   My eyeshot open, and I knew what was happening.


   "The baby's coming," I wept, "It can't come…not yet."


   Each breath hurt, more than the last. My back ached, and my thighs were pulsating.


   "Please, Great Mother of all life," I desperately prayed. "Don't let my child come tonight."


   "You can't stop this," said Sig as she stood up and ran to the entrance.


   I couldn't hear her over my contractions, but I saw her stick her head outside and wave for others to come in. When she returned, the elders came too, and so did the young maidens. I saw the look on their faces, and it terrified me. They were worried. It was the same look they had the night Prisha died.


  "You;" Sig pointed to the closest young maiden."Get behind Arda."


   She looked at the next young maiden and pointed. "Get hot water and lots of cloth. I need the rest of you to make sure we have ointment, fern root, blackthorne paste."


   I tried to hold in my screams as the young girls ran about the hut, gathering everything they'd been preparing for days now. It was all happening so fast, and I wanted it to stop.


   Sig turned to the male elders and told them to leave, and it was at that point I grew more frightened than ever. The baby was coming tonight without the matron.


   "Don't let it happen to me," I prayed to the Earth Mother. "Sig… don't you dare let me die."


   The contraction started in my back and moved like a wave down to my hips. The wave of pain grew worse and worse until my stomach felt harder than a rock, and every pore in my body dripped sweat.


   "Bring cold water and cloth," Sig said to one of the girls.


   The girl clumsily carried the wooden pail to the bedside and spilled half of it before soaking the cloth and cool water to dampen my head.


   "Breathe, Sit. Breathe."


   Sig commanded everyone. And while she may have tricked the others into thinking she knew what she was doing, I remembered Prisha. I remembered when my friend spilled all her blood on the bed. It was going to happen to me.


   "It hurts so much!" I screamed at the top of my lungs.


   The girls in the room froze in their places and stared at me like I was dying.


   "Don't just stand there," Sig screamed. "Get more water. I need more cloth, and Lyla, get me the blackthorn paste and fern root."


   "Breathe," said Sig. "One, two, three… breathe."


   Someone held a cold, wet cloth to my neck, which cooled me down. The next contraction hurt more than anything before. The baby was tearing itself out of me. This time the pain was followed by the worst stinging I've ever felt. I tried to touch myself down there, but the girls held my hands back as Sig screamed orders to everyone in the room.


   Then their voices trailed off, and soon I could barely hear them or see them.


   "I have the head," said Sig. "Keep pushing Arda."


   "Heavenly Father," prayed a young maiden. "Mother of Earth. Protect our sister tonight. Guide her through this ordeal, and deliver upon us another member of our family. Praises to our mother and father. Protect Arda."


   The prayers of the young maidens were the last words I remember hearing that night. I thought I heard the faint cries of a baby that sounded like it was outside of the chief's hut.  Everything became dark. I wasn't afraid. I was at peace. I was resting for the first time in weeks. It was all over.


   "Arda," whispered an old familiar voice. "My, you have grown."


   The calm and familiar voice grounded me and brought a little vision back to my world. But I still couldn't see, I could only sense light and shapes.


   "Arda, wake up, my beautiful girl."


   As the voice grew clearer, I knew who he was, but my eyes could not open.


   "Wake up, sleepyhead."


   It was the soft voice of my maternal grandfather. My eyes flickered open, and suddenly I could see.


   "Grandfather? Is that you?" I whispered. "Where are we? Am I dead?"

   "Take my hand, and I shall show you."

   He reached out with his right hand, and the moment I touched his warm skin, the moonlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the forest around us. The river Kur flowed calmly along its banks. The moonlight reflected off the calm waters.

   "This is where I taught you to fish. Do you remember?"

   My grandfather pointed to the fast-flowing river, crystal clear without any bubbles, foam, or mist.

   "Do you see the fish?" he asked.

   The swimming fish twinkled in the moonlight. I released Grandfather's hand and walked down to the edge of the river. When I looked into the pool, I saw my reflection. I was a child. The same I had been when grandfather died. Then I saw his reflection, over my shoulder, in the water. The stars twinkle behind him.

   "Grandfather, am I dead?"

   He looked at me and smiled, but he didn't answer. Time stood still. The fear of death was no longer consuming me. My heart was warmed by the eternal presence of my family long passed.

   "Come with me. Your favorite berries grow across the river. Do you remember?"

   My grandfather took my hand and led me down the rocky beach and into the water. Although we waded waist-deep, I did not feel wet nor was I cold. And the current did not affect me.

   "I remember picking these with you when I was young."

   "You remember very well," said my grandfather without moving his mouth. "I need you to listen to me very carefully. Do not doubt the strength or abilities of Sig, for even our matron was once, just like her. And one day, so will you be."

   The berries in my hand felt warm, and I looked down and saw them pop in my hands. Bright red juice flowed from my palms onto the ground. It was then that I noticed the grass was no longer green but red…blood red.

   "Grandfather!" I cried, looking up at him, but his face had distorted and no longer looked like his.

   "Arda," a voice whispered from behind me. "Arda, wake up."

   After hearing that voice, everything went dark. I was stuck in that awkward State between dreaming and waking. I knew everything I just experienced was a dream, but I wasn't out of it quite yet.

   "Arda," the familiar voice whispered. "You need to eat. Please, baby girl, wake up."

   It was the sweet smell of my favorite food that woke me up. But when I opened my eyes, my husband was sitting beside me with a small bowl of mashed roots and berries.

   First, everything was blurry, but after blinking for a minute, it all came into focus.

   "You're back," I whispered.

   Brahn smiled and fed me a spoonful of food. The mashed berries were sweet and full of sugar. They roused me just enough that I could sit up in bed.

   "Where is my grandfather?"

   "Grandfather?" My husband looked confused. "Arda, you've lost a lot of blood. Here, eat some more of this. The matron said it will give you back your strength."

   My husband fed me another spoonful of the sweet and starchy paste. It tasted fruity and rich and soothed the empty feeling in my tummy.

   "So, Grandfather isn't here?" I asked.

   "Your grandfather has been dead for many years now," Brahn whispered, after parting the hair hanging over my eyes. "You've been asleep for two days now. The way you were tossing and turning and sweating in bed had everyone in the village worried."

   "My baby. Where's my baby?"

   My husband smiled and looked across the chief's hut. When I sat up to see what he was looking at, my head spun, and everything went black.

   "Whoa there," my husband whispered. "Not so fast."

   After a few seconds, my head stopped spinning, and my sight came back, and I saw the matron standing at the foot of the bed holding my precious baby. She passed the baby over to Brahn, who carefully took our special child and sat next to me in the bed. I held out my arms. He carefully passed my child over to me, who instantly took to my breast.

   "It's a girl Arda," said my husband softly. " You brought our precious girl into this world. I'm so proud of you."

   My darling daughter was so tiny. She fell asleep in my arms, all my worries and fears melted away. A sense of peace filled my soul. She was a little piece of heaven that came down with me.

   I looked up and saw the elders and our close family members arrive. They smiled as though they could sense the joyous presence in the room. Then I saw someone standing in the group; it was my grandfather. Before I called out to him, I blinked, and another familiar face replaced his image. It was my father.

   "I finally feel complete," Brahn whispered. "It is wonderful seeing the baby we created."

   The matron walked to the side of the bed and lifted the blankets. I could feel her pull the small cloth from under me.

   "You've stopped bleeding," she said with a smile. "You and your baby are perfectly healthy."

   My smile stretched further and my body relaxed. At that moment, my baby girl opened her eyes and looked at me. I knew right there: this moment was going to be the best moment of my entire life. The moment my baby girl recognized me and smiled.

   Tears of happiness dripped down my cheeks. This was the meaning of life. When I looked up, I saw my husband's mother standing next to the bed. She was happy but also nervous around me.

   "Sig," I whispered, trying not to disturb my baby girl. "Come hold your granddaughter."

   I could see her own tears of joy as she took my baby in her arms. She held her close and rubbed her nose against hers.

   "I'm so sorry for blaming you for Prisha's death," I said quietly. " I know you did everything you could."

   "You were afraid, Arda," she answered. " We all were. You have nothing to apologize for."

   "Sig told me what happened with Prisha," said the matron. "It was a tragedy that, unfortunately, even I couldn't have remedied. Giving birth is the most dangerous and chaotic point in a woman's lifetime. So many of our mothers and sisters, and daughters die from this event. But even with all the risks and dangers of pregnancy, when the baby is born, all the pain you endured, all the fear that consumed you vanishes instantly. Love for your tiny baby makes you forget.

   The matron was right; I did feel that love. And there was nothing Sig could have done to save Prisha. My fears clouded my judgment and took control over my thoughts. I pushed away the closest thing I had to a mother.

   I stared into the beautiful dark eyes of my baby girl.

   "What are you going to name her?" asked Sig.

   I looked up at my husband, who smiled back at me. His light nod told me everything. He was happy with the name we discussed before he left, the name I wanted to give our child if it was born a girl.

   "We're going to name her Anaya."

   "What a beautiful name," answered Sig.

   "Hello, Anaya," I said to my baby girl.  "You are our beautiful gift from heaven."


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