Readers will recognize the first 200 words of this. It began as a random bit of fiction. Upon great encouragement, I tried to flesh out the hook with something substantial. I really don’t know how to do fiction, so I’m open to any and all suggestions. I don’t know how to make an arc or an ending. As one reader pointed out in the original post: The hook is the easy part. Then what?
The night sky cracked apart, revealing for the blink of an eye, the white-hot purity that glowed behind the darkness. Seconds later the earth shuddered its response like one hundred bombs detonating at once.
We huddled together under the lee of a jutting boulder, while below us a tiny creek began gathering force, as rain pelted the peaks and gullied off granite, collecting in the gravel rivulets.
We were doomed, if not by the terrible force of the electric sky, then by the predatory patrols of men with machetes. Basra clutched my son to her chest. We needed to keep moving, but if we were lucky enough to avoid the electric bolts from heaven, we risked sliding off the now mud-slick path to the rocky and ever more forceful water passing below, beckoning like a witch’s finger.
Another flash lit Basra’s face and my heart fell into her round, terrified eyes. The accompanying timpani triggered Aaden’s shrieks of fear and hunger. At that moment, the tumult of the storm was a blessing that covered the wails of our child. How much longer could we run? When would it stop?
Before they took him away, my father told me to leave the village:
Go now, before it is too late. Go now, go alone. Don’t join a group. The larger the group of travelers, the more likely someone will make a mistake and then everyone will pay for that mistake with their lives. Go now. Don’t worry about me or about your mother or your sister. Young men are in demand. We will take care of ourselves. You must go!
But I did not heed my father. I was afraid. And I couldn’t bear to leave Basra, her belly large with our child. I couldn’t bear to leave my mother and my sister, knowing that women without protection suffer unimaginable tortures.
The storm continued: flashes of lightening, followed by gut-wrenching thunder that after its initial blast rumbled lethargically through all the gullies and canyons that surrounded us. Eventually the thunder and lightening wore itself out, making room for the rain to take center stage, sheeting against the ground as if from a high pressure hose.
Aaden clutched Basra’s full breast with suction cup lips, hungrily guzzling her rich, warm milk. It was all we had to comfort him with. We had no food for ourselves, no toys to distract him, and no soft bed to cradle him.
When the men with machetes had appeared in our village, we scattered like marbles. I was with Basra in her tent, across the plaza from where my family’s tent was. Together, we ducked out, rushing for the scrub brush behind the complex. We could hear the shrieks of the many who fell under the spell of the machetes. I heard my mother screaming in defiance and I heard my sister’s unmistakable whimper. I had spent my entire childhood with the sounds of my mother and father and sister in our tent. I knew the sound of my family like I knew the feel of my tongue on my teeth. Rage roused me from our hiding spot, But Basra’s frantic hand on my arm clutched me back to reality. There was nothing I could do for them now. The only hope left was to protect my woman and child. Basra was right. As always.
During the madness of the attack on the village, Basra and I crept further and further back, huddling under meager cover, taking advantage of the lengthening shadows for protection. We aimed for a sharp drop off about a quarter mile away from the village. We slid down the embankment to a dry creek bed where our tracks would disappear in the gravel, then ran as fast as our stumbling feet would carry us.
My heart swelled with pride and admiration for Basra’s strength and courage. Even with the additional burden of Aaden slung close to her body under her breasts, she ran like a gazelle, surefooted and confident. We ran for nearly a mile, going ever so slightly uphill before leaving the creek bed to tackle serious vertical. To reach the border and possible safety, we had to scale this mountain range, all the while avoiding established roads, trails, and passes patrolled by the machete men.
It was tough scrambling up the side of the mountain of decomposing granite with little plant life to hold the soil together. Our feet slid backwards and rocks ripped the skin on our hands and knees and compromised our thin leather sandals. But we kept at it, trading places in the lead, the person in the rear acting as a safety net when the lead person’s feet gave way. We’d been so focused on our footing that we paid little attention to clouds gathering above us. We couldn’t have done anything about them anyway. The only thing beyond our feet that concerned us was the possibility of machete scouts following us. It appeared that we had made a clean getaway.
The first tentative drops of rain were bliss to our sweat soaked skin. But the drops accumulated and soon sweat was replaced by a solid rain bath, chilling us. We were very close to the top of the pass when the sky exploded and we dashed for cover under our rocky ledge. We huddled there, the rain torrenting off the edge of the protruding granite, getting colder and colder with the lack of movement. At least we felt reasonably certain that no one would be gaining on us with electricity so palpable. As the lightning and thunder passed on, we forced ourselves to resume the journey, despite the continued downpour. Aaden was beyond cries by now. Our feet slid with each precarious step, but we persevered. It was nearly dark by the time we crested a saddle that provided a glimpse of the village below, just over the border—safety. Smoke hovered above the campsite, but this was a warm, welcoming smoke, the smoke of cooking fires and lanterns, the smoke of safety rather than the smoke of death from which we had just escaped.
As difficult as our uphill battle had been, negotiating the wet ground on the downhill side was even more difficult. On this side of the mountain, there was less gravel, more bare dirt which turned to slippery mud in the rain. We were so hungry, so cold, and now I heard Basra sneezing behind me; sneezing uncontrollably. I had to get her and Aaden down the mountain and into the safety of the village. I stopped and demanded that Basra hand Aaden over to me. She was overburdened. Her strength was gone, her feet no longer fleet, she could barely stand and yet she argued. She didn’t want to let go of her child. I had to shake her and forcefully rip the baby sling off her shivering form. Now her tears played a duet with her sneezes. I wrapped the sling over my left shoulder and grasped Basra’s thin body with my right arm, trying to wedge her armpit over my shoulder for support. I was surprised that she submitted. Another, more visceral fear invaded my bowels.
We arrived at the edge of the village in the deep dark of night, wet, bedraggled, and barely upright. I could smell the remnants of evening meals, now being put away and cleaned up. An unfriendly guard greeted us with the muzzle of a rifle.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Through chattering teeth I told him about the attack on our village and our journey over the mountain. He was unimpressed. Our appearance was not novel. Too many of our people had sought aid from border villages like this one. These were not wealthy communities and they were weary from providing support to refugees from the cross-border madness.
The guard whistled and another young man arrived. They exchanged hasty words and the newcomer motioned us to follow him. He lead us to the center of the village where the elders were gathered around a large fire, deep in conversation. All talk ceased as they took in our ragged appearance and exchanged knowing looks with each other. An old man with many scars and only one seeing eye called out a name. His wife, much younger than he, emerged from the tent behind him. He simply nodded in our direction. She knew the drill. She came forward and took Aaden in her arms and half carried Basra to the tent. The elder motioned for me to wait.
Someone brought a bowl of rich, sticky rice which I gratefully gobbled. Another person brought me a gourd filled with sweet, fresh water to wash down the rice. I was worried about Basra and Aaden, but was not allowed to visit them in the tent. I could here Basra, now coughing and moaning, a highly unusual sound coming from her. She had barely cried out during childbirth. My bowels clenched again and my heart seemed stuck in my throat.
The elders explained that I could not stay long with them. They had more mouths to feed than they could provide for. I would need to push on toward the foreign aid station several miles east of the village. Eventually, I was given a thick robe and a place to curl up near the fire. My contribution would be to keep the embers going during the night. I slept fitfully, listening for Basra and the boy.
Before the sun rose, I got up to stoke the fire and rouse it to a robust furnace of heat. I wanted to approach the tent where Basra was, but I knew I could not disturb the elder. I was surprised when he emerged from a different tent. I headed for Basra’s tent, but he grabbed my arm.
“No, boy. It is not for you to enter the sick tent. You wait until you are invited in. My woman will tell you when it is time.”
I ground my teeth, but did not dare disobey. several women came and went from the tent. One woman brought food in. Another woman took waste out. Yet another, much older woman stooped into the tent and she stayed there for a long time. When she emerged, she looked at me, pity lodged deep in her eyes. She nodded to the elder, who sat behind me eating his breakfast.
“Okay, boy. You may go in.” he said.
The air inside was rancid. A tiny fire smoldered under an opening in the back of the tent. It was warm, dark, and dank. But it was not quiet. Basra’s breathing sounded like the jets that rumbled across the sky. It was loud and raspy. A damp cloth lay across her forehead.
Aaden cooed in the arms of one of the women I had seen enter the tent during the night. I was shocked to see her breast exposed, my son’s face inches from her huge brown nipple. The woman tending Basra rose as I entered the tent. I dropped to my knees in her place. Basra’s lips were dry and cracked. Mucous bubbled from her nose. Her eyes were closed. I reached down and touched her cheek, “Basra,” I whispered close to her ear. Her eyes half-opened and without focusing, closed again. Her lips moved shaping my name, then Aaden’s. I grabbed her hand in mine but her grip was limp, nearly gone. I looked up at the woman who had tended her throughout the night. The woman’s eyes dropped from mine, sadness bent her frame and she ever so slowly shook her head.
“No! Basra, stay with me! Stay with us, Basra. Aaden needs you, I need you. I love you. Basra!!”
There was not the slightest response from her hand in mine. Her eyes remained closed. Her ragged breath, the only sound she made, and that becoming weaker and weaker.
“No! Come back to me Basra . . . “ I looked across the tent to see my son contentedly nuzzling that full brown breast, the breast of another woman, not his mother, not my wife.