I bled today. It came smearing darkly on my thighs and Atta came with cloth wet with warm water and a resolved tight smile. The time had come. “I am prepared” I said softly in the gray dawn. Atta said nothing.
I am given my tunic, pulling clumsily at the strings made from the skin of our last pig, tightening the front across my chest. If I am a woman, then why do I not have breasts like my sister Ibby? I wonder as I hear the scrapping of my Otta’s spoon across his wooden bowl. Atta is telling him. So I will wait.
“You must fast, my moonbeam” Otta tells me. “It will be hard,”
I frown. “But I have fasted before,”
Otta nods but will not see my eyes. He pulls my bowl away from me so as not to tempt me. “Yes, you have. But it will be different. Now you bleed,”
Atta set before me the tea, the only thing I am permitted to swallow in while the sun is in the sky. It is dark amber colored and smells like wheat. My Otta looked upon me now, with that same resolved tight smile. “You will feel weak today, my moonbeam. Do not be afraid to tell the elders you must rest throughout the rites.”
“Perhaps she can be seated?” Atta said, clutching at my shoulders behind me as I blew into my tea, the steam making my face feel soft. Otta only grumbled, because he was not on time for the field rite. Things in our kitchen went into a rush then. Where is my sister? I search for her, padding back through our hut, my leather bowl in my hand, still steaming with tea I have barely drunk. I stare at her empty bed, fur tossed hastily up over the mattress. Atta comes up behind me “She knows,” was all she said then she eyed my bowl. I hastily threw the tea down my throat, wiping my chin. Atta laughed softly, she pushed at the three small braids across my forehead, all three copper colored. I did not mean to be born with this hair. But such is the way of the Gods.
I leave by myself this time to the morning rites. The sun is not so high but it is angled in a way that it bounces off the vivid color of my head. People are divided here…some are in awe of me, some are frightened. They used to say that I was born of fire, but the elders say I am born the color of a Rammanan coin, so I must be a token, to be cherished. I would rather be fire, not a piece of dirty metal. None of that matters now that I have woken a woman. I pass the bog, brittle grass sweeping at my bare ankles, it smells salty and green here; heavy. I ponder the idea that I ate my meat the night before and I drank the cider my Atta had just made and I bathed in lavender cream and hot spring water and I let Ibby brush and re-plait my hair to my waist and I did all these things as a little girl. I went to bed, my Otta sang me a song of the North. I slept and dreamed of Norden dragons and horns full of beer and I did this as a little girl. And then I woke up. I was woman. What the moon gives you, what it pulls forth from you, it holds me in wonder of the Gods and so maybe it isn’t so terrible to be their token.
I sigh into the salty green. I am almost at our Tarrahm. It is the only thing built of stone here, rough gray blocks in a circle, one giant stone block across the top. There are stones that let you go to the top where it is flat, but that is only for sacrificing animals. Underneath it is dark and hooded. A fire pit is built deep in the ground, down the center, into which I had seen at least five newborns thrown in all my thirteen years. Five newborns, one born without limbs, one born without sight, one born with an extra digit, one born with his mouth curved up into his nostrils and one just last month, born with a head that seemed crushed in. Let the Gods take them back, the elders say. They were not meant to be. They would have thrown me in the fire, with my hair. But I am the token….
I enter the Tarrahm where most of our village has gathered for morning rites. I am not permitted to sit amongst them, rather I must sit in a special place where I can be looked upon. I am not meant to melt into the sea of thick, glossy dark hair and skin like cream with cinnamon stirred in…sort of muddy. I am not muddy. I am as pale as the snow that falls during the third season, and my veins run blue underneath and you can see them, to the complete astonishment of…well…everyone. So I sit here on this bench off to the side, in front of everyone, so at any given moment, a person might glance my way and behold the one who is the token. I see my Otta with the elders, I know what his words are. I watch silently, and then I feel a small gush between my legs, where it is already uncomfortably sticky. The elders have not permitted me to stuff rushes between my legs to catch the flow; that is the rule. Within the last year, rites have come more often, they have been more serious, with the impending changes to my body. They did not know when it would happen, but they would be ready. From the look on the elder’s faces, they are ready. From the look on Otta’s face, he is not. I look away, feeling a wetness seep into my tunic. My stomach turned and spoke to me, asking why it is not full of fruit and bread. I sigh. I remain seated, for fasting will be harder today.
My eyes glance up now, seeking to withdraw from these thoughts. Ibby is in the crowd, her eyes on me. She will not speak to me now. Our stories in the field yesterday and the long talk about what it will be like to marry by the fire last night; that is over. Today is different, and she knows. Ibby does not look resolved, her smile is not tight, in fact, she is not smiling. Ibby is the only person who does not want me to be the token. I look away from her, as there is nothing I can do about that, for I did not mean to be born this way, but I have never felt sorry. I do today as Ibby stares. There are other stares, but they are nothing but dark brown and thoughtful, I have endured all these eyes for so many years now, but there is one pair I search for, and those belong to Simon. He is sixteen this year. He asks to touch my hair when he catches me without Ibby in the wood. He asks how it curls so and of course I do not know the answer. My blood pools in my cheeks and I think he likes that. Once he traced a vein in my neck with his finger and it made me shiver yet it was the dead of summer. Simon is fascinated by me and everything that makes me the token. I think if I were not the token, he would kiss me, or perhaps he only looks at me this way because I am the token. If I were not, perhaps I would be just ordinary. My stomach speaks again, and for just a moment, the world spins. I am tired. I will never marry Simon.
“The sun has brought us the tomorrow we prayed for,” I heard Niat, the elder boom throughout the Tarrahm, his thick, long beard stained greenish brown with mud from the bog as a sign that he touches the Gods. It is the opening prayer, we always are grateful for another day, yes. I let my eye sight blur as I stare into the flickering orange and red of the fire wondering if I am as grateful as I should be. I hear them sing the Song of the Mornings Dew, but I do not sing. I am too distracted by the sickening gush onto my thighs. The morning rite is finished and I am shameful that all I could think about was blood and my breakfast. My ears burn as my name is spoken.
“…has finally come.” Niat was saying. People shifted on the rushes at this news. Niat beaconed to me. I suddenly was fully aware of myself, I did not want to come to him. Whispers. Two elders came behind me, gently helping me to stand. I felt the back of my tunic strip away from the wood of the bench. They brought me to Niat’s arms. He turned me around for all to see, I heard the murmurs at my blood.
“The token has come to womanhood,” Niat said proudly. I was turned back around and my tunic lifted for all to see the stains on my thighs. I gazed at Simon, his adoring face. He almost looked hungry. Ibby had her eyes cast down. My Atta and Otta clutched at each other. So many prayers…
“Today we will use the blood of the token, red within as without, come and be blessed.” And so it was. He dipped his finger into the secret parts between my legs and drew out the blood and slashed the cheek of each villager who came to be blessed. Today was a sort of holiday, and I felt my life ebb and flow around me, on the faces of the people who had come to know that I was given of the Gods.
“Prepare the porrage,” said Niat, and I was grateful then.
I was permitted to go home after the morning rite. I was permitted to lie down in my bed. I threw back the fur and saw the dark stains there, and I knew if I laid down, there would be more, but I could not be squeamish just now. I was so tired. “Otta was right,” I muttered to myself. I felt so raw there in the quiet. My Atta’s soft humming drifting back to me from the kitchen.
I thought it was a dream when I heard my name. My face was turned to the wall, the peat moss packed with the mud giving off their gray heady scent even after all these years. I heard my name hissed again through the wall. It had to be a dream…for it was the voice of Simon. He pressed his face to the other side of the mud wall, his voice muffled but I could hear. “Mena” he called to me with is wonderful young man’s voice. I sat up and winced at a new pain under by belly. A dull ache mixed with the grinding of an empty stomach. I heard him say my name again. I pressed close to the wall. “I am here”.
“Come out. Your Atta is away” I heard him answer. It was quiet. How long had I been asleep? Atta had already taken mid-day food for Ibby and Otta to the field. I tried to get out of bed and grimaced as I pulled my thighs apart, the tender flesh peeling apart as I did, fresh blood smeared everywhere, and it some places, it was drying and flaking. I felt sick. I stumbled out to see Simon. He leaned against the back of our hut.
“Wil-ay-o” he said in greeting, smiling as the sun struck the top of my head. “Wil-ay-o” I said in return. He licked his lips, looking at me. His smile faded slightly. “Your hair in the sun is like the fire in the Tarrahm,” he said. He had said it before but now there was a hint of sadness in his voice. I merely stood there, my limbs weak and my stomach begging for something solid. Simon stared at my face for a very long time and I let him though it I knew I should not. Simon was not my promised one, though I wanted him to be. Besides that, I was the token, one should be so bold as to stare and touch as he did, though I wanted him to. I felt the usual color seep into my skin, the heat found my cheeks. He pushed off the wall suddenly and came towards me. I froze shocked at how fast he did this, he moved like the big snakes in the bog only I did not go for my spear…I did not have a spear anyway. Simon was before me in a blink of an eye, his hands on the sides of my face, closing in and staring, searching.
“Are you afraid, Mena, token of the Gods?” He was so close, I could smell the cider on his breath he must have drank, and it must have been sweet, cold, good cider, too. I could see gold flecks in his eyes and I wondered if anyone else had noticed this, did anyone else have gold in their brown eyes, and if not, did this make Simon a token that we didn’t know we had. I also thought the gold was like the color of the seeds on the crust of the warm morning bread and how it melted in your mouth if you got a piece of it just as it was fresh from the oven.
“I am hungry, Simon, son of Ollad Viay,” I whispered. His eyes bore into mine.
“Mena, I smell your blood,” he said, bringing his face in even closer. This did not bother me as much as I thought it would, in fact the only bother of my coming into womanhood was that it was uncomfortable. The fact that people had beheld me this morning, soaked with it, and were blessed by it, did not seem to make a difference to me. So much reverence had already been afforded to me by our people, all because of my red hair and skin like the first snows. I could not answer Simon, I could only concentrate on his mouth and wonder about his cider. I noticed he had already washed the slash of my blood from his cheek.
Simon said my name again, and drew his thumbs across my cheeks. “I am afraid,” he said. I frowned, and then realized that I would be afraid if my Atta came around the hut to see him with my face so tenderly in his hands. She would throw a pail of water at him and curse his Atta.
“Why are you afraid?” I asked, breathless at how close he was. Simon’s hands moved across my jaw line but still, he did not take his eyes from mine.
“I am afraid that I will never get to do this,” he said before he pressed his mouth on mine. It felt like drinking cider, sweet and fresh. My eyes did not close, were they supposed to? Simon’s did. His brow furrowed with such delicate sadness as he pressed closer. When it ended, it seemed the burning in my abdomen was not as terrible. His hands slid from my face and I swore the heat from him would stay there forever. Simon’s eyes brimmed with tears and he gave me a crooked, boyish smile. “Now I am not so afraid,” he said and then he turned and left me standing there, bleeding, breathing and dizzy.
And I felt grateful.
As the sun was poised to set, I was taken to the Tarrahm. My three copper braids were undone and combined with the one large braid down my back but now, that braid was wound into a bundle at the back of my head. I had never had my hair up off my neck before, but it needed to be out of the way, as Atta told me. While our village prayed, I was sat before a bowl of porrage, grains from the bog, the fields beyond that were sacred and we did not till, seeds of all colors, and they reminded me the gold flecks in Simon’s eyes. I tried not to eat this porrage ravenously though my stomach called for me to shovel spoonful after spoonful of it as fast as I could into my mouth. I paced myself. When I was finally done, I felt full and wonderful. I was given nothing to drink and so my mouth felt thick.
Then I was washed. Niat undressed me before the crowd of brown eyes and cleaned my thighs of every drop of blood that had poured from me and dried there on my skin. The bowl of water turned dark when he was done. The blood of the virgin token, though mixed with water, was still sacred, and it was poured into a small clay jar. I was presented naked, fed and washed before my people. I was made ready for my marriage.
We convened to The Tree.
Simon in the procession. I could feel his eyes on me, his warm hands on my face, despite Niat wiping me with a wet cloth, the imprint I could feel there had not gone away to my great delight. I would marry with his touch on me. The great tree was the only one that stood on the outskirts of the great bog, its bark a deep gray and it never grows any leaves. Its bare limbs climbed and climbed towards the sky and it seemed it was the hand of the bog itself. I was placed under the tree while Niat began the marriage rite. I could not find Ibby anywhere, but my Atta and my Otta were there, knees in the wet ground, hands outstretched before them, repeating the prayer as Niat said it.
My husband dangled above me, a rope of made from the skin of the last cow, braided strong and sure, to take me to my marriage bed. I have known all my life, what it meant to be a token of the Gods, bestowed upon my family and my people. Thirteen years of betrothal, knowing nothing else but what was going to happen the moment I bled, this moment I was in now. When two of the seven elders lifted me up, as they pulled the circle of rope around my neck, I saw my sister. She was not knelt in prayer, but rather she was standing just outside the edge of the bog. She was far away but I could see her so clearly. She did not want me to be a token. The elders so lovingly held me up high, their smiles were always so kind, the rope hung loose around my neck, the blood still coursing from between my legs. I watched Ibby sob, her tears shimmering on her face as twilight set in. Could she see me smile? I wonder. My smile would tell her that this was meant to be, that I am not afraid. I saw Simon in the middle, crane his head up at me from his prostrate position, fingers splayed in the mud. And I gave him the same smile, because for one moment, I was his, with the sun on my hair and his kiss. That’s all I could feel just then, the sweet tingle of my mouth, like drinking cider. The prayer was ended. The elders dropped me, the rope tightened with a sudden jerk, I felt the skin of my neck tear a little, here and there. The last thing my eyes saw was my sister, covering her face at the edge of the bog.
I did not mean to be born like this, but such is the way of the Gods. I know they cut me down from the tree, wrapped what was left of the rope around me and bundled me in sheep skin. They placed me, curled on my side, on my marriage bed, made of peat and rushes and they sent this bed out into the murky waters of the bog. The water will overtake me…and I will sink down and down. I will dream there, my husband will have Simon’s face, with cream and cinnamon skin and dark eyes with gold in them, he will kiss me whenever I ask for it, he will hold me fast in this underwater fortress. He will be all I know that is safe.
Because I am the token. I am given to the Gods.
Inspired by the bog people of Europe. I acutally was reading about the history of porridge (or porrage as it is sometimes spelled) and stumbled on the history I remembered learning in school on the ancient bodies found in the bog. This is my imagination of all that…