"Miriam, go fetch the water."
Eagerly, Miriam dropped her sewing and ran into the kitchen to grab the pail. "I'll be back, Mother", she said as she walked out the door.
Fetching water is one of the only times Miriam is allowed out of the house. For fifteen-year-old Miriam, it is a cherished joy.
The well is at the village square, a few minutes' walk away. As Miriam walked down the mud road, the fresh smell of mud after rain brought a little springiness to her steps.
The road forked, one path leading to the market. Miriam glanced in that direction with longing.
She could hear the bustling from the market. Her big brother would be there, peddling the vegetables freshly plucked from their field this morning.
She could even hear the horn of a truck. So there is a visitor to the market today. That's a rare occasion. She could imagine all the villagers crowding around the truck, pushing and shouting, trying to impress the visitor with their goods.
One of the days, Miriam would like to go to the market herself. It would not happen, however, until she is married to a good man, who can act as a guardian for her in public. A girl going to the market without a guardian is out of the question.
Not wanting to linger, Miriam continued on the road to the village square.
There is the well, and her good friend Algris is there!
"Miriam!" Algris greeted her, smiling happily.
"Algris, it's been so long!" Miriam hurried to her friend. She dropped her pail and hugged Algris, and then, feeling Algris hesitate, she stood back, a little chagrined.
Algris is her age. When the two girls were young, they played together every day, even though playing mostly consists of helping each other with chores. They used to tell each other everything, all of their secrets.
However, everything changed when the girls turned thirteen, the age of womanhood. You are not supposed to play and laugh with girlfriends anymore. A girl must stay home and work on her dowry, preparing to be a wife.
For that reason, Miriam hadn't seen Algris as often as she wanted to. They had grown distant.
"Oh, Miriam, I'm sorry." Algris said suddenly, and hugged Miriam back. "I've been distracted lately, that's all."
"That's okay. I know you are busy." Miriam said, the smile back on her face. "I've been sewing my dowry pieces all day, my fingers' swollen as radishes."
Miriam showed Algris her hands. "Look. Ugly, huh?"
"The same here." Algris showed her hand as well. "What man will marry a girl with fingers as ugly as mine?"
They both laughed, bonding over the shared misery. Miriam suddenly became self-conscious and looked to see if someone would scold them for being vulgar. She caught Algris's glance as well, a furtive glance that became a grin.
"Listen, Miriam." Algris bent toward Miriam's ear. "Want to hear a secret?"
Algris bent even closer. "There is a visitor in the town today. I know him. He..."
Algris suddenly stopped talking. Miriam looked back and saw that someone else had entered the square.
It was Lugrid, the young man Miriam had secretly admired. Lugrid is a friend of Miriam's brother, and he came to her house several times. When the men were talking, even though she wasn't allowed to be there, Miriam would listen on them just to hear Lugrid' voice.
Lugrid was just passing by. He caught Miriam's look, gave a slight nod, and moved on.
When Lugrid was far away, Algris gripped Miriam's hand and said, "That man is...nice."
Miriam's face instantly flushed red, but habit prevented her from replying. If someone were to catch them gossiping about men, her father would most certainly whip her!
She managed to say, "I guess."
Algris whispered: "Miriam, you like him, don't you?"
Miriam tried her hardest, but couldn't hide her embarrassment. In the end, she nodded.
That interlude with Lugrid prevented Algris from telling Miriam her secret. The two girls parted ways shortly afterward.
As Miriam hauled the pail of water home, her mind was occupied by thoughts of Lugrid. Did she really like him? That's not as important as the question: will he marry her?
Of the few men Miriam was allowed to know, Lugrid was the only one who moved her heart. They never talked much, and Miriam knew nothing personal about him, aside from him being her brother's friend. However, she thought there was a kindness in him, quite unlike the sternness of her father and the unpredictable temper of her brother.
Overall, she decided marrying Lugrid wouldn't be a bad idea.
That evening, while preparing dinner in the kitchen, Miriam heard her brother at the door. To her surprise, she also heard Lugrid.
Curiosity got the better of her, and Miriam abandoned the chopping knife to go take a look.
In addition to Lugrid, her brother and her father, there were also a few other guests in the room. Miriam recognized the village headman, but the rest were strangers.
The men were talking about something serious. Her brother's angry voice rose above the rest: "We cannot allow them to destroy the village's honor..."
Miriam tried to peek at Lugrid. His usually placid face was heated with passion.
What is going on to make Lugrid so upset?
Unfortunately, Miriam's father discovered her before she could listen any further. He shouted at her, his face contorted by anger: "Get out of here! This is no place for women!"
Miriam ran back to the kitchen.
Dinner that day was strange. The guests had left, leaving just Miriam's family. Both Miriam's father and brother were still fuming, so upset that they barely touched the food.
Miriam dared not look at them. She hoped they would say something, share what's really bother them. But that's not how men do things. Whatever was bothering them, she could not be part of the discussion.
Miriam's mother accidentally served a smaller slice of bread than her father liked. He unleashed his rage at her, shouting and waving his fist. Miriam's mother shrank to the wall, her head bowed, apologizing again and again.
Don't take out the whip. Miriam silently pleaded with her father. She dared not speak anything, letting her eyes do the talking. If the whip had to fall on someone, she would rather that it be on her.
Fortunately, her father's rage fizzled out after a while. No one was beaten.
But the strange evening continued. After Miriam finished the last chores, she prepared to go to bed. Generally, her father and brother went to bed at this time too. Instead, she heard them leaving the house.
What is going on? The question spun in Miriam's head, making her restless. She laid down on her straw mat, and sat up again.
In the distance, she heard shouting. A crowd was gathering in the village square, a large crowd. When she peeked outside the window, she saw black shadows moving down the mud road: yet more men were joining the gathering, and for what?
The men were carrying clubs and hoes.
Miriam decided to sneak out of the house and find out. As she crept to the door, she heard her mother screaming: "Miriam, don't you dare go outside!"
Miriam pushed open the door and ran out. Her mother tried to chase her, but stopped at the door. "Miriam, please come back!" Her mother pleaded, almost crying.
"I'm sorry, Mother. I will be right back." Miriam said, walking away.
Furtively, she followed the men to the village square.
There were hundreds of people gathered there, all men from the village. They shouted, pointed, and angrily waved their weapons. They were shoving one another as each tried to get closer to the center.
And in the center, on a temporary platform near the well, was Algris.
She was bound with ropes and blindfolded, her clothes streaked with blood. Two men were holding her, forcing her to kneel on the platform.
"Quiet down! Quiet down!" Shouted the village headman, standing next to Algris, but barely anyone heard him.
Miriam hid behind a tree, watching from a distance. She dared not approach the mob, afraid that they would pounce on her. She knew that Algris was in deep trouble. The men looked so angry they could tear Algris to pieces.
But why? Miriam couldn't understand. Recalling her conversation with Algris, she couldn't remember anything usual.
Except for that "secret", something about that visitor from out of town...
Suddenly the mob quieted. It was not the headman's orders, but a shriek from Algris that silenced them.
"Enough!" Algris was shouting, struggling with her guards. "Enough with this nonsense! I did nothing wrong!"
The mob watched, shocked and almost repulsed with this outburst, until the headman stepped up to Algris and punched her.
Algris cried out. The headman struck again, and then he grabbed her hair, shaking her violently. "Shut up, you whore!" He yelled.
After a moment of silence, the mob burst into cheering. They stomped the ground, banged their weapons together, and roared.
The thunderous roaring hurt Miriam's ears. Now she really feared for Algris' life. But what could she do? It's not as simple as begging her father to not strike her mother. What could she do against hundreds of men?
The headman held up a hand for order. This time, the mob obeyed.
The headman pointed an accusing finger at Algris, whom had slumped to the ground after he let her go. "You, Algris of Phoenix Village, have copulated with an outsider to dishonor your family."
Copulate? Miriam did not know that word, having never gone to a day of school, but she understood it to be something serious.
The headman continued, "You have made plans to elope with this outsider, to betray Phoenix Village. Your actions have put the entire village to shame!"
"I did not!" Algris said, still defiant.
The crowd jumped at this defiance. "Evil witch!" They shouted, but the headman once again silenced them.
"You dare deny it?" The headman said through gritted teeth. "Your very accomplice gave you up!"
There was only silence from Algris, and the headman laughed in victory. "Witch, you are abandoned by your own beau! Now we will punish you to restore our honor!"
The headman turned toward the mob: "Strike down this evil woman!"
It was the signal to kill. No one stepped forward to be the first to strike--they all rushed forward at once, weapons raised, hungering for blood.
The weapons fell on Algris. She was alone in the center of their rage. The mob struck her with everything they've got, with so much anger and hate, as if she really was a giant monster who could swallow the village whole.
But she's not a monster! She's just a girl! Miriam screamed inside.
For a moment, swayed by her own anger, Miriam almost ran out of the hiding place. She wanted to save Algris. Even against hundreds of men, even if it would cost her her own life, she wanted to save Algris, her only friend.
But in the end, she stayed in hiding.
The instinct for self-preservation overcame everything else.
Miriam shrank against the tree, clutching it with white knuckles. The flash of weapons blurred her eyes, and the men's war cry roared in her ears. Where is Algris? Miriam could no longer see her.
But Miriam could see her father and brother, and Lugrid. Lugrid was fighting the monster at the forefront of the mob. He raised a club triumphantly and swung it down with a grunt of pleasure.
When it was all over, Algris's body was carried away and the mob dispersed.
Miriam went home at last, just ahead of her father and brother. She sneaked into the storage room where her straw mat was, and laid down to sleep. She didn't dream.
The next day, her father and brother were more cheerful than before. They didn't yell at her even when she slacked at her chores.
In the afternoon, Lugrid came for a visit. Unexpectedly, Miriam was summoned to their meeting.
Miriam did not wish to see Lugrid. The crush she secretly nursed had shattered overnight. All she could see in him now was the man wielding the bloodied club.
Her father explained the purpose of the meeting: Lugrid had proposed to marry Miriam, and her father had agreed.
Astonished, Miriam stared at Lugrid. He was back to his calm and gentle self, and he even smiled at her.
Miriam's father continued to talk. The wedding would take place four days from now. Miriam's father had originally wanted to wait, but decided it would be best to do it quickly. After all, he didn't want Miriam to learn bad habits while slacking around without a guardian.
"Your father and I reached an understanding last night." Lugrid said kindly.
Last night. Miriam thought. After killing Algris.
"Miriam." Her father said. "You can leave now. Lugrid and I will talk the details."
Miriam didn't move.
Her father frowned. "Miriam! This is no place for a woman."
"I'm not marrying him." Miriam said.
For a moment none of the men spoke. So shocked were they by the declaration. Then anger overtook surprise. "What did you say?" Her father said, voice rising.
"I'm not going to marry." Miriam repeated, and glared at her father in defiance.
Miriam's father almost jumped up. "Arrogant woman, how dare you embarrass me in front of a guest! Where's the whip, I'm going to beat you bloody!"
And how quick are you to sell me to a murderer. Miriam raged silently. And you are a murderer too!
Miriam stood back, out of her father's way, but refused to retreat further.
Lugrid persuaded Miriam's father to not whip her on the spot. However, he did whip her after Lugrid left. Ruthlessly.
Miriam was left bleeding and hurting everywhere. Her father locked her in the storage room and refused her food and water, until she would surrender.
Four days later, dehydrated and feverish with infection, Miriam was married to Lugrid.
She was barely conscious, so she had to be carried to Lugrid' house. Once there, they gave her water and a shot of antibiotics.
Miriam had a dream. She was talking with Algris, who was so excited because she had learned something new.
"Miriam, do you know what country we are in?" Algris said.
"No, what is a country?" Miriam said.
"It's a place, a big place. Before the War, there was a country called America, and Phoenix village was a city in it."
"I've never heard of America."
"Because that's not there anymore; it was devastated in the War. Now there are only villages spread far away." Algris paused, and then said: "But far, far away, there are still countries, better places..."
"How do you know all this? You don't go to school." Miriam said.
"Oh, I learned it from someone." Algris said, suddenly secretive.
When Miriam awakened, she was already Lugrid's wife. She was lying on a cot, her wounds had been briefly bandaged, and Lugrid was in the room, watching her.
"Why do you have to be stubborn?" Lugrid said, no longer with a pleasant voice.
Miriam replied with silence.
Lugrid stepped forward and seized Miriam's jaw. "What happened to you? One day you were a meek and ignorant girl, and the next...It's as if the curse of witches is going around."
Miriam shot up, slapping away Lugrid's hand. "Don't touch me!"
Lugrid struck Miriam across the face, slamming her down. "I can do anything I want with you! You are my wife!"
What happened next passed like a feverish nightmare for Miriam. Lugrid was on top of her, and even though she struggled with everything she got, she couldn't shake him off.
Suddenly, her eyes fell on an object leaning against the wall. It was a wooden club, the same club Lugrid had wielded that night.
When she looked at Lugrid again, he was wearing the same expression as on that night: savage, and enjoying every moment of it.
Miriam went very still.
Eventually, Lugrid fell asleep next to her. Miriam got up quietly, taking measured steps as to not wake him.
She picked up the club. Lugrid had not even wiped it clean. It was still smeared with Algris' blood.
On that night, when the men attacked, Algris' voice had been drowned out by the men's shouting. But now Miriam could hear it clearly.
"I didn't do anything wrong! I didn't even like him, I just wanted to leave this place!"
Miriam walked up to Lugrid, raising the club, and swung it.
Lugrid didn't make a sound. She smashed his head before he could react.
The club dropped away from Miriam's hand. She put on all her clothes, and walked out of the room.
Where could she go next?
Where did Algris want to go?
Miriam walked away from Lugrid's home. She took the road to the market first, passing the empty stalls. Beyond the market, she found another road out of the village.
She had no idea what lay ahead. It could be another village, another terrible place, or it could be endless wasteland without another human in sight.
But she had to go on, carrying Algris' unfulfilled wish. If there was a better place where they could be free, she had to find it.