By Elizabeth Anderson
Thirteen-year-old Tika Aza ran down the dusty path that led from her home village of Tvarnaer to the neighboring village of Es Seli. Her heavy cloth backpack, filled as it was with shovels and other metal trinkets, bothered her not one bit.
Tika loved to run. She lived with all boys; her mother had died during the previous winter. Her chores were many, since few Rhetian males had the patience to cook good bread or to make well-fitting clothes. Tika also lacked that patience, but she would not admit that to either of her aunts, who would both have been glad to help. Tika’s mother had quarreled with her own mother when Tika had been quite young; which meant that Tika’s family’s house was as far away as it could have been from the rest of her family’s. The quarrel had been a scandal to the village; new houses were only built when the old ones were much too crowded.
Seree [Ms.] Alina, the leader of the village, had asked Tika to run this errand for her. “We need some crushed seeds to make the Solstice Pastry,” she had explained.
“Oh, I will be happy to do anything for you,” Tika had said. “Only—may I go after lunch? I have a loaf of bread baking in the common oven and it will probably have burnt before I can get back.”
“Don’t worry,” Seree Alina had reassured her. “I’ll see that it gets taken out. Your family’s mark is the green one, right?”
“Yes,” Tika had said. “And thank you very much.”
“Oh, I have the better end of the deal.” Chuckling, Seree Alina had given Tika the backpack.
The path was just a narrow cut through the forest, barely large enough for a Qosarla [sheep-like animal]. The fir trees, large both in width and height, brushed sharply against Tika’s bare arms whenever she strayed the slightest from the path. Insects hummed, birds chirped, and trees rustled from both animals and the wind.
A meadow surrounded the path at the halfway point. Tika picked some greens and stuffed them under her sash. A stream was not far off, she knew. She had travelled along this path many times.
At the stream, Tika took a long drink and then began to eat. She felt content and wished that she could linger, but she did not want to make Seree Alina angry. She got to her feet, put her backpack on again, and crossed the stream on strategically placed rocks. The sharp rocks hurt Tika’s bare feet only a little; they were very tough since she only wore shoes during the cold half of the year.
Tika continued running, but, even through the trees, the day was growing hot. I’m almost there, she told herself. She reached Es Seli not long after noon and completed her trading transaction quickly, then headed back to her village. A fast distance runner like her was very prized in Rhetian society. She was proud of this, especially since she had no other talents. She did not write well, and could barely read. The past winter had been her last one of struggling with addition and subtraction.
At home, Tika often felt useless. Only these trips gave a sense of purpose to her life. Most of the other children only rarely visited other communities.
On her return, Tika waved the other villagers working hard in the garden and in the orchard. She found Seree Alina. “Seree Cayaina gave me two barrels and four jars for all but the two smallest shovels,” she announced.
“You did very well, Tika. Let me give you your bread.” The praise from Seree Alina was eaten up just as happily and greedily as the piece of bread that Tika ripped off the loaf.
“Thank you, Seree Alina,” Tika said. She placed the bread in the cold cellar. It was such a nice day—perfect for being outside and swimming. Yet the whole house smelled funny, with there was dirty laundry, account papers, announcement papers, and toys littered all over—at least, they were until the mice ate them. Tika shook her head, sighed, and searched for a clean set of clothes. Surely, she deserved a rest! After all, she’d made bread and run to Es Seli and back.
Down at the swimming-pond, Tika found most of her friends. Fifteen-year-old Tlinie was the oldest. She was a very nice, but meek, older girl. She left her towel by the edge of the pond to throw over herself as soon as she got out. Tlinie’s two younger brothers were hardly as gentle as she was; both of them were splashing around the large pond at an extremely fast rate. Tlinie’s cousin Lenera, who was fourteen, was taking her five-year-old sister, Lili, for a swim.
Nari, who was sixteen and the beauty of Tvarnaer, no longer swam in the pond or played childish games. To cool off, she and the other older girls and women went wading in a slow-moving stream. The older men went to a different spot on this stream when they did not feel like being splashed by boisterous children.
Also absent was Saria, who was ill—deathly ill, so it was rumored. She had never been strong. Deaths were common at this time in Rhetia; forty years was considered a good long life. Tika’s elder sister Ellai had died during her first winter. The girls’ mother had told Tika about Ellai’s death so that she could remember her older sister’s name. Tika had promised, voluntarily, that she would name her eldest daughter Ellai.
Life was hard work for every Rhetian, Tika knew. Of course, she had her own preferences for work, as they all did. Nari preferred to do work that would never get her hands dirty. Tlinie enjoyed sewing, while another girl their age loved reading and writing. Eight-year-old Tvana Cene had already learned how to bake most of her family’s recipes, it was said, and now she was making up her own. Tika had only learned how to make the common, everyday dishes.
Tika loved to run.
She also enjoyed swimming, especially on hot days like this one. Tika knew that she should have been preserving food or cleaning the house. She felt guilty for enjoying herself, but she continued to swim and splash until early evening.
Tika ran home to make dinner. Her father and brothers were hungry after their long day of work. Tika hurriedly tore off four pieces of bread. She then found some fresh salad greens. It was not enough to be able to satisfy their hunger, but Tika was unable to do any better.
The girl tidied the house until the sun’s rays cast their last shadow, leaving behind a pleasant dim blue light. She climbed the stairs and went into her tiny bedroom.