I close my eyes and tilt my head back to feel the fresh breeze across my face. With a deep breath, I draw in the open air, trying to calm my mind. Perched atop the highest point of the Tereka cliffs I find only a temporary refuge; my mind, haunted at the thought of my future being claimed by the village down below.
I am Caress, born of the Tereka Clan.
The cliffs represent different things to different people. Rocketing up from the valley floor, some see them as a barrier, a giant geological wall tearing across the terrain. Others see them as a protective cocoon standing guard against the dangers beyond the unknown. The question is… are they a barrier to keep something out, or to keep us in?
With another deep breath, my mind drifts back to a happier time; as Adam and I would regularly climb up these rocks, spending hours in the tail end of our childhood, playfully growing up together. It was about two years ago, in this exact spot. He was lying on his stomach on the rock below, his tongue extended slightly out and off to the side as he sketched onto a torn piece of paper. Using an old board as an easel, he would toil away for hours illustrating the wondrous horizon beyond the cliffs. It was the last time I remember laughing.
My younger, playful voice echoes the memory…….
"Adam, you're just going to get into more trouble. It won’t matter that it’s your birthday." I smiled and shook my head, amused by his resolve.
“So my days of freedom are over? No more hiding out with you? I turn eighteen and it’s off to a life of manual labor in the village.”
“Well…regardless of tradition, they're going to expect you work somehow.”
"Heh, I don't care. I am not going to dig in the mines."
Like me, Adam hated the general stench that permeated life in the village. The dirt and grime caked on the men was emblematic of a typical life. I knew by his passive tone that he was serious, prompting me to ask, "So what are you going to do?"
"I've been thinking about becoming a baker.” He shot me a quick smirk, daring me not to laugh while teasing, "Of course, you would have to handle the baking part."
"Of course.” I suppressed my laugh and playfully pretended to agree with his scheme to avoid working.
"We can steal your mom's recipes.” He continued, and reached into his coat pocket to retrieve a chunk of coal.
The people of the poverty-stricken village viewed items like pencils as a modern luxury. Adam’s only means to find something to creatively draw with was to salvage elongated chunks of coal from the mines. "Each morning, we will make fresh biscuits," he continued, "and I will hand them out to all the men as they march by with their picks and wheel barrels.”
I laughed out loud, vividly picturing the absurd scene Adam was concocting.
"I'll have a big smile on my face,” he grinned sarcastically, “putting them all in a jovial mood to start their day.” Briefly lifting his eyes from his sketch, he extended his hand, pretending to balance a tray, mimicking the handing out of biscuits, taking pleasure in watching anyone other than himself staggering towards the mines with a pick and shovel. "Except for your father…"
"Ooohh" my laughter subsided to a suppressed giggle, eager to hear Adam's plan.
"For your father we will make fresh cookies. I will give him like 4 or 5. You know, something to take that scowl off his face.” He tried to imitate my father's face, but then smiled at his own absurdity and returned his focus to sketching.
"You know, there is a slight problem with this plan.” I paused for dramatic affect. “The men get up around dawn."
"Yeah exactly. That’s another reason why I can't be a miner.”
"Well if the cookies are fresh, then you have to start making them before the men get up.”
"You're right,” he smiled, “that’s not going to work at all.”
"Ha! Which part? Getting up in the morning? Or finding a way to bribe the scowl off my father’s face?"
"Heh, both! I could work 14 hours a day and he would still look at me that way." He scowled out another imitation.
"Oh, I don’t know,” I speculated, “14 hours of digging might just start to chip away at his aversion.”
"Nah, trust me, there are many reasons why he doesn’t like me. I know.”
"Oh really, I gotta hear this.”
"Well, for starters he thinks that part of why you always come up here with me is to get back at him. He’s afraid that I might just inspire you to be creative again; re-awaken the musical dreams of his little girl. Number two, he suspects that I am going to talk you into running away with me. Number three… yeah, the whole… workthing.”
“Yep.” I chuckled in agreement. Adam and my father were fundamentally incompatible. "You're doomed.”
"Yeah, he’s never going to like me.” he sighed with a tone of forlorn resignation that was out of character.
"Well here then...” I said while reaching down towards him; offering a handcrafted leather bracelet, "Happy Birthday. This can be reason number four.” Traditionally, the offering of a bracelet in our culture was a sign of romantic intent. Adam's playful sarcasm subsided as his eyes lit up. Genuinely happy, he paused while grabbing it in order to prolong the touching of our hands.
I called out the design, “The knots slip one way, so that it can stay tight. My mother helped me make it.”
"You see?" he said, "I amreviving your creative side.” His eyes shined and looked deeply into mine. He slipped the bracelet over his wrist and began to carefully study the woven details. “Where does your mom come up with these ideas?” he mused before returning to his playful sarcasm, “Well at least I have oneof your parents on my side. You definitely take after your mother, but if I had to guess, I would say it’s likely you’re a love child.”
"Oooohh!" I gushed, building on his theory "a love child… conceived from one last night of passionate forbidden love. That would explain a lot." I took a moment to ponder my upbringing.
“… and there.” Adam sat up, the final touches on his sketch complete. He pulled himself to his feet, handing me the torn piece of paper, then jumped onto my rock to kneel behind me, leaning in close over my shoulder to share in a moment of wonderment as I gazed into his creation.
With my right index finger, I traced across his strokes recreating the remote terrain, occasionally raising my eyes to correlate the actual topography in the distance. Even with the blunt end of a jagged lump of coal, he could still manage a skillful orchestration of the landscape's gentle touches of tone. “Ahh” I delighted out loud as his work drew my attention to a far cliff that I had never noticed before. I raised my hand to point out the rocky formation on the horizon.
“Yep!” he affirmed, “It’s all out there____ just waiting.”
Jarring me from the precious memory, “Caress!” the shrill voice of my sister pierces the air. “Caress, I knew it! I knew I would find you up here! Wasting the day away. There’s real work to do you know.” My eyes open as my shoulder sink back into reality. Long passed are the days that I would consider her to be my twin sister. Draped in the traditional village garb that would make our father proud, I would argue with anyone who said we looked alike. As far as I am concerned, there's absolutely no resemblance to me, especially with that grating tone in her insistent voice, "You are supposed to be helping me with the harvest.”
In a moment of soft defiance, I don't acknowledge her presence, daring her to try and climb up the crevasse of the last rock to reach me. Which of course she cannot, at least not while wearing those sandals. The ones worn, or I should say assigned, to every girl in the village. Nope. Instead, Serene sticks to what she does best. Nag. "Caress," she becomes insistent. "Come down now... father wants us to gather 20 bushels in preparation for tomorrow night.”
I calmly reply, "Serene, I don't care about the ceremony.”
"Well I don't care, that you don't care” she snaps. “Like it or not, we are both turning 18 tomorrow. Father has already invited all of the men. Heh. Did you cut your hair again? Oh, father is gonna love that. Look. If you're trying to turn all the men off by dressing like a boy and butchering your hair then I gotta hand it to you. Of course all that really means is you’re gonna find yourself chosen by one of the smelly old fat ones.”
“I’m busy, I cannot come.”
“Mother is too weak, someone needs to tend to her.”
“Oh, I want to see the look on father’s face when you try to tell him that. He has not one, but two daughters who are becoming THE AGE. The men are coming to make their offerings… and you.. are not going to be there to take one of their hands?”
“That’s right…” I walk over to the rock’s edge, towering high above my sister below. “I’m not getting up there to be presented as some ripened produce freshly in season. You may be okay with being auctioned off to the highest bidder, but I am not.”
“Is that the way you see it?” Serene scoffs, “We get to be married. Finally, on our own. It’s the day where webecome the prized possession; start our own family. Caress you better wise up and learn to use the power we have as the new givers of life. Don’t you see the opportunity?
I chuckle, “That’s some real opportunity."
Serene squinches her eyes, “Your problem is that you don’t know how to work men. And they are so easy! So obvious in their desires. All you have to do is lure them by their ego. If you just make them feel like they are the ones making all the decisions then you can get whatever you want.”
“Well that’s romantic.” I dismiss. “Two people secretly manipulating each other under the guise of a relationship. Pretending to be in love.”
“Oh you think Jacob is pretending to be in love with me? I can assure you that he is absolutely in love with this.” Serene arches her back while grabbing her buttocks. “You just think you’re too good for the rest of us. Constantly questioning a life outside the village doesn’t somehow make you special. The only real question for you is nine months from now… boy or girl. Oh, I hope Jacob gives me a boy. Lots of boys. I’m gonna see to it that they grow up strong; carrying the fighting spirit of their grandfather. You know, between the two of us we could give father a small army. Of course, knowing you, you would want it to be a girl.”
“You don’t know me.”
"Oh yes I do. You would pick a girl. So the two of you could sit around and daydream; fantasizing about some grand life, far away from here."
"Shhhhh!" I throw my hand out, indicating for her to shut up. "Do you feel that?" The air tightens as a low hum emerges from the distance. Serene ducks down, scurrying to hide in the shadows of the rocks. I turn to the sky while announcing, "They're coming!”