by Alice Woodrome
Marda sat on the dirt floor of her shelter and ground seeds between the milling rocks. She looked at her aging hands as they moved the rounded stone with a slow steady motion against the grinding slab. They were the gnarled hands of her mother. When the seeds were ground into a course meal, she collected it in a wooden bowl her mother had given her when Marda came to live with Shinmak and his family. Marda had rarely seen her mother after that day; only when they had meet accidentally while gathering food in the woods. There was bad blood between Marda's brother and Shinmak and she was no longer welcome in the home where she lived as a child - now her brother's cave.
The old woman took a deep breath and closed her eyes momentarily. Nothing would have been the same without her mother, anyway. She hadn't thought much about her mother for a long time, but suddenly Marda wished she could be with her again. She put another handful of seeds into the concave rock and repeated the milling action and thought how different her life was without the woman who had raised her. After all these summers, it still seemed different - less safe, less kind.
It had been many summers since she heard that her mother had weakened and died. It was as if Marda hadn't been a part of the family anymore. In truth, Marda was then a part of another family - Shinmak's.
Marda stopped the milling action long enough to wipe sweat from her brow with her doeskin sleeve, then continued the work that would feed her family. Her man had defended their cave for many years and provided meat for all of them when his father became too weak. Marda birthed five children to Shinmak, though three had died while they were still babies. Their daughter was given away at thirteen summers to live with another family. Marda had become gray as their remaining child, a son, grew tall and strong.
Marda looked at the swollen belly of the woman who sat beside her at the milling rock. "My son's baby will be a big healthy one," she said with a smile.
"I hope so," Dielbron said, who had joined the family the winter before. "Wregi wants it to be a man child. I think it will be. It kicks so much inside."
"We will know soon, I think," Marda said. "I hope it is a son. You won't lose a son so young." She liked Dielbron and tried to teach her their family's ways. The younger woman had settled in and took over much of the burden of Marda's responsibilities, even as her belly grew with child. Marda was grateful, but uneasy as her worth to the family decreased.
The women hushed when they heard voices outside the cave's entrance. It would be the men, Marda thought, returning from a hunt. She hoped they had met with success today. Their store of grain was dwindling and there will be two moons before roots and berries again grew in the woods and more than that before they could gather more grain to make bread. They needed meat to fill their stomachs until the woods became green again. Shinmak was getting slow. She sometimes heard her man groan with pain when they slept at night, and she supposed it would not be many summers before their son, Wregj, would take his place as head of the family. Marda sighed. If only her son had gathered wisdom as his body gathered muscle.
The women looked up as the men entered. Wregj carried a young antelope over his strong shoulders and beamed with pride. She smiled at her son. There would be food for many days - meat to feast tonight and much to dry in the sun.
"Quit showing off, Wregi," his father scolded. "Take the beast back out and gut it so the woman can begin to prepare a meal."
Wregi flashed anger at the reprimand. "Don't order me around, old man. I took the beast down after you failed. You can gut it this time."
Marda looked at Shinmak as he lifted his hand to his son and then turned to leave the cave in shame. She looked at Dielbron. The young woman raised her chin and put her hand on her ripe belly. Marda felt a chill. This is the beginning of the end for us, she thought. It would not be long before Shinmak and Marda would be little more than slaves in the home they raised their children. They would eat and live at the whim of their son and his woman.