(This is a Story about the Human Tribes -- see listing for related stories.)
Coriander woke feeling cold. For the thirteen days before, she had felt comfortable. The coldness she felt now was not related to the temperature outside – nor was it related to illness. She knew she was healthy. The coldness she felt this morning indicated something else. She knew that tomorrow, her temperature would seem to soar – she would wake almost in a sweat, and she would wake that way every morning for two weeks, and then she would feel comfortable again. She smiled to herself, then got out of bed and put her feet into slippers as she stood. Coriander headed to the bathroom to complete her morning ritual. She knew what she would find.
Her cervix was soft and open, ripe for fertilization and implantation. Her fluids were the consistency of egg whites, and stretched more than a hand’s length. Coriander sighed and headed back into her empty bedroom. Thunderchild had risen before her and was surely already walking about the colony. She went to her bed and pulled a small book of records from under her mattress. Sitting on the bed with it, she took a quill pen from her nightstand and added another dot to her graph. This, of all days, was the best day for becoming pregnant.
‘Not that I will,’ she thought sadly. Her cycles had been as consistent as the moons. More consistent, Thunderchild’s mother had once said. Coriander knew she should have gotten pregnant years ago. She could have gotten pregnant four days ago. Could have—if she and Thunderchild had had sex. And if Thunderchild was fertile.
If she had dared to voice her suspicions — that her husband was infertile —Thunderchild would have roared at her. He thought that she was the problem. He thought that she was barren. She felt she knew better. All the signs pointed to her ability to have children despite her physical appearance. She did not have the rounded hips and full breasts that was expected of Ebean women, but she was a woman. Years of charting fertility cycles proved that.
No... Coriander had come to the conclusion that it was Thunderchild preventing them from having children. Cruel circumstance had forced the knowledge onto her. Had they not both been the youngest children in their families, had Coriander’s birth-mother not taken such pride in her Suftic heritage, had they been inclined to remain on the mainland, they might not have been bound in a Suftic-style monogamous marriage. Had they been part of a full kukota, her other husbands could have impregnated her. They would have raised the offspring as Thunderchild’s, with no one the wiser. Had they lived fifty years earlier when the Suftic practice was still widespread, had they been five times richer, Thunderchild might have taken a second wife to give him children, and they have would been one family. But here… there were whispers about her, her barrenness! And Thunderchild no longer looked at her with eyes of love. He, she felt, blamed her for their lack of children.
“Oh, Thunder… if only you knew the truth!”
Infertile males were hardly known among the Ebeans – most likely because of the family system of kukotas. Thunderchild’s sister Dandelion had guessed at the truth, though, the last time Coriander and Thunderchild were on the mainland. The two women had whispered of it together, and Coriander had defended her husband as much as she could. To Coriander’s shock, her sister-in-law had even made the suggestion that Coriander sleep with her own husband when the time was right, but the time was never right. That month, when she had ovulated, Thunderchild had been in a rare amorous mood, so it was his bed she shared. And had enjoyed it. As much as she wanted children, she had wanted her husband more.
She sighed, closing the book. It had been months since she and Thunderchild had shared that sort of intimacy. She wondered how he managed it. She was frustrated beyond frustration. He no longer desired her. He thought she was a failure. It was her fault he had no children, and lovemaking served no purpose. He no longer loved her. She knew that. She had no children, and it seemed now, she had no husband. Or at least a husband in name only. They shared a bed, a house, meals, and duties, but that was it. He barely looked at her any more. At thirty-three, it would not be too long before she’d be too old to even hope for a miracle, and what would she do then? A tear slipped down her cheek — she wiped it away.
She clenched the book to herself a moment — her secret. Any other woman, if she saw it, might guess the truth. She could not let them — she had to protect her husband’s honor, even if it was at her own expense. Thunderchild, with a woman’s mathematical mind, a woman’s theoretical education, and a position that should be a woman’s, already had to work hard enough to show himself a real man. This burden would not be his. Standing, she replaced the book in its hiding place under the mattress and turned.
Setting her mind at the tasks ahead, Coriander quickly dressed. There was much to do. She looked forward to her work, and she was good at it. It was an escape of sorts from the truth that haunted her — the truth she was bound to keep to herself. She had to make rounds just as Thunderchild did. Getting to work was good for lifting her thoughts out of the dark place they were headed to, and she always enjoyed seeing her people at work alongside the Baha natives of this new land. One Baha in particular.
She smiled. Bomo’s interest in her people and culture had blossomed into a deepening friendship with both herself and her husband. Bomo was bright and his language skills were a marvel. He learned quickly, and he was becoming more frequently used as a translator between peoples. A third, mixed language, was also developing, one that made the transition between languages easier.
Coriander felt a little strange flutter in her stomach at the thought of Bomo. He had been just a boy when she first met him. Now, at eighteen, he was becoming a man, and not unattractive. His quiet manner was what attracted her first. His eyes reminded her of Thunderchild’s in a way. They were curious and full of life, just as her husband’s had been almost half a lifetime ago. They spent time together daily, with her teaching him language and he teaching her about the land they lived in.
She didn’t know when she first realized she was attracted to him, but she no longer denied it, at least to herself. Still, she was much too old for him. And she was already married. Technically, he had been married, too, but his marriage had broken up after he and his wife produced no children. He spoke little about it. She did not press him, not wanting to touch on topics difficult to them both. The way the Baha formed their families was not the Ebean way, and no solution to anything.
To discourage her own budding feelings, she had taken to meeting with him in open spaces. Today, however, it was raining. They would surely meet indoors. Coriander knew better than to have Bomo into her home alone. It would not be proper. She would meet with him elsewhere, and would invite Nonoli, the wife of the Baha's chief, Tamyon. It couldn’t hurt to be cautious.
“Tar-gu – ” Bomo rolled the foreign syllables on his tongue, titled his head to one side thoughtfully, then tried again, “Tar-kum…?”
Coriander watched him in silence, allowing him to tangle with it a while. They sat in the small one-room building that served the Ramatean Ebeans as a classroom for their few children, scrolls heaped on the desk before them. Nonoli sat on a pillow in the corner of the room and sang a rhythmic Baha work-song as she chipped arrowheads. Twin lamps hung on one wall, casting more light into a room made gray by the rain outside.
The yellow light played oddly on the milk-pale skin of the two Baha, the glistening darkness of their hair. Coriander marveled at the differences between her hand and Bomo’s as their fingers traced a word across the scroll. He had such broad, deft hands – precisely the sort an Ebean man would prize. And yet he had more, a clever mind as well as clever hands. And he flaunted it, not like the quieter, more blunt and straightforward intelligence that Ebean men were expected to show.
More like Thunderchild.
“Tar-gum,” Bomo tried again with more confidence, shaking her out of her thoughts.
“Almost,” she said with soft patience, thinking back to her marriage-mother teaching Thunderchild and his older brother. Teaching was a prized task of an Ebean woman, a measure of womanhood itself. “Look carefully, there…”
“Tar-gu-mu,” - to translate or interpret - Bomo said instantly, and grinned with pleasure as she nodded. “Hah, it does get easier with time, just as you’ve said! Easier than reading tracks in the woods.”
Coriander was aware, at that moment, that Nonoli had raised her head from her arrowheads and was looking at the two of them. The younger woman’s Ebean was very good, and nothing got past her keen ears. Coriander didn’t glance back at her. She knew that such words from Bomo should worry her, as well; she should be worried about alienating him from his tribe, drawing him away from the position that awaited him as chief. But he was so much better suited to it, she thought stubbornly, suited to the letters, the scrolls and books, than to a simple life of a spear-carrier…
Just like Thunderchild.
“Bomo is so clever.” Nonoli’s sing-song voice startled them both away from the scroll. Her cobalt eyes were a little narrowed, her smile crooked, her voice the distinct nasal-childish pitch that Baha women adopted when mocking men. “Bomo will hunt a big fat deer with his pointy stylus. Maybe do other things with it too. Does Teyu like a stylus between his legs in the tent at night?”
Coriander choked, suddenly grateful that her dark skin made her furious blushing harder for the Baha to detect. She knew that this sort of casual mockery was part of the normal fabric of life for the tribe, but still, in her gut, she couldn’t comprehend how Bomo could stay so cool at words that would have made an Ebean man’s blood boil. And on this of all subjects! Teasing Bomo for his reading was bad enough, bringing up his lover, the Baha shaman Teyu, whose disapproval went far beyond teasing - that was downright merciless. Nonoli was so sweet, so open. Coriander considered her a friend. What could have prompted this?
Bomo knew how to respond. His pose was languid, almost stretching across the back of the chair, as he glanced back at the chief’s wife. “Nonoli is not so clever,” he said with a smirk. “Insulting the shaman behind his back! What if Teyu gets some words, along with his stylus, in the tent at night? What would Nonoli say to her man then?”
Coriander knew Teyu, the Baha shaman, well enough to know that the threat wasn’t a real one; it was just a reminder, calling Nonoli on the inappropriateness of her words. It did its job, as she ducked her head and went back to her song and her chipping of arrowheads. A perfectly normal ritual among the Baha, she’d seen its like hundreds of times. And yet her hand wasn’t quite as sure guiding Bomo’s across the scroll after that. He hadn’t really answered the bite of Nonoli’s insult, she kept thinking. And she kept wondering what Nonoli was thinking, that had made her speak such harsh words at all.
Later that afternoon, when Bomo had left with Thunderchild, she received her answer. Nonoli confronted her. “Coriander, you feel for my husband’s heir the way you ought to feel for your husband.”
Coriander almost dropped the bowl of imported oranges she was carrying to the table. Clutching it more tightly and waiting for the flush she felt on her cheek and neck to dissipate, Coriander placed the bowl on the table and sat in a chair. Taking a deep breath, Coriander decided to confide in her friend. “I care for my husband still. Even though his love is cold. My infatuation for Bomo is only that — infatuation. I have no intent of lighting a fire between us.”
Nonoli shook her head. “It is not right, friend.”
Coriander nodded, tears welling in her eyes. “I know,” she whispered. Blinking them back, she stood and went to look out the window. She did not want Nonoli to see, to guess, her real pain. “I… cannot stop meeting with him, though, or others would guess. It would not be fair to him. And my husband needs Bomo to learn. It is best for all the people. I will continue — we will meet in public only, or with you if it is here. I will do nothing to encourage him, and I will guard my own heart. Perhaps, in time, my feelings will change. Feeling something is not wrong — it’s what is done with feeling that is right or wrong.”
Nonoli had risen and come to stand behind Coriander while she spoke. She wrapped her arms around her friend, and Coriander’s tears increased at the show of affection. Nonoli said quietly, “Your husband does not have the fire when he looks at you. That is hard. You must be strong. He wants children, and you have none. Find another way to make him happy, friend.”
Coriander bit her lip at the mention of children. Even Nonoli seemed to think she was barren. She wanted to confide in her, to share her suspicion, but she would not. Thunderchild deserved her respect. Instead, she whispered, “I try to — every day, I try to. He rarely looks at me. It is as if I were not here. So I work. I try to help things run smoothly here, and I try to encourage our peoples to know one another. I study, and I learn. I am Mata here — though many would rather not deal with me. I am strong for him, Nonoli, for him. I want him to succeed, so I am strong for him. And I will be strong for him.”
Nonoli let go. “Do not let your work, or your strength, keep you from him, friend Coriander. Remember why you loved him, and help him to remember why he loved you.”
Coriander nodded, continuing to look out the window. “I will,” she promised. Nonoli quietly gathered her things and excused herself. When Coriander finally turned away from the window, she was alone.