I do not know love, but I know her. I know her breath, her tiny chest rising and falling beneath my hand. Her blue eyes, wild and deep.
I can not protect her, I know this. But I will teach her to survive.
She comes into the world against my will. I am not ready. I want to reach a safe place, somewhere warm and dry, four walls and a roof even. There is no such place. That's what she does to me, she makes me hope. It's dangerous.
Still she comes, through blood and tears. I find a crevasse tucked into the rock wall and cut away the scrub brush and prickly grasses. I lay down my best tarp, knowing it will be ruined after with the scent of carnage.
She is wide-eyed and quiet.
When she cries, I hold her and put my breast to her tiny gasping mouth. “This is the only comfort you'll ever know.” Tears come, threaten to drown us both. She will be stronger than I am. She must be.
I am still torn and bleeding when they come. But I am smarter than them. They have already made two critical mistakes: they expect an easy hunt, and they want me alive. Women are so hard to come by.
She sleeps through it.
My milk dries up, and she learns to eat what we can find. She watches everything.
I shave her head while she sleeps. Better that she never know, never long for it.
We roam the desert in large circles. Follow the food, the water. Never too close to civilization, or what passes for it now. She learns to run before she can talk.
My old knife fits well into her tiny hand, fingers grasping the hilt with ease.
“This is how you kill a man.”
“Tell me about your scars, mama.”
“This one,” I say, as she runs her finger along my cheek, “came from a man who thought he could use me.”
“I survived. These marks are left by the fights that don't kill you. Wear them with pride,” I tell her.
She traces the raised skin, finding where it crosses another, older line. “What about the inside scars, mama?”
“How do you know of those,” I whisper. I thought she had more time.
I lift my shirt. My skin is a patchwork of old wounds, some jagged, others clean. “I make them outside scars, nene.”
“This is how you kill a man.”
She does well.
Hunting parties grow larger, bolder. Once we watch a caravan pass below us, cages on crude wheels filled with women, girls, even a few men - the pretty ones, I guess.
“We could help them, mama.”
“It’s too late. They couldn't help themselves.”
She sleeps poorly that night.
“When did you grow so tall, nene?” She is tall and wild and beautiful. I imagine what her hair would look like. Spirals and curls, like mine had been? Or stick-straight, draping down over her shoulders, like a silken cloak?
“When you weren't looking, mama.”
They come upon us in our sleep, a scouting party, four men. I kill one as I wake, knife up under his ribs, hot blood splashing on my arms, in my eyes. I am blinded for a moment too long. I hear a scream.
I lunge at the sound, desperate and angry. My fists connect with a man’s back and he grunts, losing his balance and falling to the ground. I roll off of him. I wipe the blood from my eyes in time to see her plunge her knife into the neck of the third man, the fourth already clutching at the guts spilling out of his stomach beside her.
The one I knocked over is trying to pull himself up, to run. I tackle him again and slit his throat. “Not today.”
“It's time to leave,” she says. She is draped in blood. “The desert isn't safe.”
This desert has been my home for more years than I have remembered to count. “It's never been safe.” But there’s a comfort in knowing its crags and crevasses, its moods and tastes.
“Where do we go?”
“West,” she says. “I want to see the ocean.”
“Is it really that big?”
“You sound like a child.” I scrape at a piece of stretched leather with my knife, carving the fat away from the skin. We'll need packs that we can fill with supplies if we're going to travel.
“Water that stretches across the horizon. It sounds like a story, mama.” It sounds like a lie.
I was there once, long before the world died. I held my mother's hand as we walked the sandy beach and watched the salty spray of the waves crashing over jagged rocks in the distance. Maybe it is a lie.
“You'll see when we get there, nene.” I don't believe we will.
She is stronger than I am. She still has hope.
I hear her laugh once.
I stop, the sound unrecognizable to me. I was away scouting the path ahead - is she hurt? Who’s there? I climb up nearby rocks, approaching our camp from above, ready to leap on the intruder. This is how you kill a man.
But it’s just her, laughing. I watch, unable to move. She is... dancing. I never taught her to dance, but she learned it anyway. It’s clear to me now that she’s not a girl any longer.
We have to leave.
“What are these, nene?” A series of small, clean cuts are healing on her arm, just below her shoulder.
“My outside scars, mama.”
The desert clings to us, coating us in dust and sweat. Our packs snag on scrubby underbrush as we pass. I think it doesn’t want to let us go, that maybe we are its creatures as much as it’s our home.
“You’re sentimental, now?” she teases me. When did she start doing that?
We would be dead now, or worse, if not for the caves set high in the red cliffs, eroded over millions of years and yet somehow always exactly where we need them most. Or the canyons sheltering their secret streams, full of fresh water and a sure sign that there will be food nearby.
“Maybe I am.”
She was born here.
I will not watch her die here.
Trees are strange and alien creatures. I do not trust them. They litter the ground with their dead which crunch beneath our feet, announcing our presence to the prey and predators alike. They hide the sun's passage, confusing my sense of time.
She flits between them like a wisp of smoke. How easily she learns to move without a sound, to spot the rodents that will be our dinner, to coax fire out of the damp muck that surrounds us.
I am growing old.
Men move quickly in the forest.
They die quickly, too.
“Too many,” she whispers. A raiding party has been following us for weeks. They are smart, these men, smarter than their desert cousins.
We are up in the trees, watching as they spread out beneath us. One looks up at us, but our camouflage holds; we are not spotted.
I am slowing her down.
“Where will you go?” she asks, refusing to look at me.
“South.” I believe I can catch the edge of the desert there.
She nods, and I see tears carving a path from the corner of her eye down to her jaw, a map of scars to come.
“And you, nene?”
“West,” she says. “I still want to see the ocean.”
I brush my fingers over her cheek, stealing a tear for myself. Then she’s in my arms, and we cling to one another.
I thought I had forgotten how to cry. She proves me wrong.
Four days. Five.
Keep running, remember to leave a trail. Break a low-hanging branch, smear a splatter of blood, footsteps only partially brushed away.
It won't be long now.
I can smell the desert. The air is warm, the trees are thinning. If I can get there, if I can draw the men out behind me...
Men surround me, standing in the shadows of the trees. In my mind's eye I see my nene, standing on the beach.
— This is how you kill a man. —
The ocean stretches out in front of her, as far as she can see. Her mouth is open in wonder, in joy.
— Knife up under the ribs, pierce the lungs, roll away. —
Her hair is growing out, her one rebellion. I see the soft, dark waves tangling in the salty breeze, streaming behind her as she runs to the water’s edge.
— Slash at his throat - missed, damn. Block another blow and try again. —
A gull cries above her. The tide moves in, brushing against her toes, and the cold of it startles her. She laughs, high and bright.
Pain blossoms in my side. Seven men lay dead around me, but the eighth, he grins. His knife is sticking out of my stomach, his hand still on the hilt. He twists the knife and yanks it out, and I cannot stop the scream that rips itself from my throat. I clutch at the wound, shock trembling through me. They so rarely aim to kill.
“No.” I swing my free arm around and shove my dagger into his throat. “I’m taking you with me.” He falls, still grinning.
I lay back, vision growing dim as I struggle to breathe. He must have punctured my lung.
I hope this was enough. It had to be.
I can’t protect her, but I taught her to survive. I knew love because I knew her. I close my eyes.
Survive, nene. Survive.
Misty Hayes is an emerging writer living in Las Vegas, NV. She wears many hats: mother, bookseller, student, naiad, wife, and mess-maker, to name a few. When she isn't writing or lying anxiously in bed thinking about writing, she spends her spare time embroidering curse words onto fancy throw pillows.