The Runner: The Torture Chamber

Kisha peeked through the dark, billowing curtain at the broiled sand along the road. Dust swirled and light blazed, invading the cramped quarters.

“Shut it! Shut it!” snapped Grandma Seilee from the opposite corner. 

For just a moment, Kisha breathed in fresh, warm air, then she closed the flap. They rode on in silence, jostled by the rutted road and the uneven pace of the horse team. Kisha looked about the dingy, dark cabin and sighed. Sweat trickled down her back. Across the opposite bench, her mother-in-law’s face glistened in the dim light. Her sister-in-law’s leg rested against hers and felt like a furnace, even through their dresses. This drove Kisha crazy but Jasmine seemed oblivious. The poor girl tried to read her book in the ever-shifting crack of light penetrating the blackout curtains.

Kisha wished she could read like Jasmine, but each time she picked up a book her stomach would turn and inevitably they would halt the caravan so that she could purge herself. Her husband would glare at her, Maia, her mother-in-law, and Grandma Seilee would complain bitterly that the girl had been reading or sewing again, and the entire clan would shake their heads. Slowly, the long line of wagons, riders, and livestock would amble forward. Instead she rode doing nothing, in silence, hour after hour. Every minute spanned a year. 

Inevitably the caravan would stop for the night, the women had to spring into action. Unloading, unpacking, set up cook sites, minding the smaller children running amok, and cooking; much cooking. Always chopping, grinding, peeling, or simmering something in their makeshift kitchens. And as hard as they worked, the food would disappear in minutes. 

That was hours away. For now, as the midday sun-baked their carriage, Kisha studied the inside of her husband’s wagon for the millionth time. Her new grandmother and mother sat across from her on their high-back wooden bench. Grandma Seilee dozed with her head resting on a faded black pillow. Maia stared blankly into space, her body swaying with the the cab but her mind far away. Bags and boxes filled into every available space around them, for they were nomads and took all their belongings when they traveled. Every bag made of dark material and every box painted matte black. Only the pale faces of the women and their hands broke up the study of grays that filled Kisha’s world. Until her eyes rested on Maia’s scarf. 

In public, her mother-in-law wore it wound around her long black hair, but inside the cabin, she draped the gossamer fabric over the back of the bench. Kisha did not know what type of cloth it was, but it felt smooth and soft. It was as light as a feather but with gold threads winking and twinkling in even the dimmest light. Tiny flecks of rose-pink and soft greens danced in a swirling pattern among the glimmering threads. Such a beautiful scarf! However, the feature that captivated Kisha the most, was its color. Brilliant blue when bunched together and pale as a midday sky when held to the light. Nowhere in their land or her life had she seen anything with that color: no bird, flower, or sky could match it.

Sometimes at night when Gof was in a good mood, she would beg him for such a scarf. Always his answer was the same. Even if he could afford one, where would he get it? They were not found in this land. His mother had bought this scarf from a traveler in one of the cities. No one had seen one like it and the fabric vendors did not know how to make its duplicate. 

All day, every day, Kisha gazed at her mother-in-law’s scarf. She dreamed of wearing it draped around her shoulders. Instead of her dull, brown dress, she would wear her pale muslin wedding dress and dainty, beaded slippers on her feet. In her fantasy she stood on soft green grass at the edge of a spring and cool, clean breezes played with the scarf and her dress. She smiled and then jumped.The carriage hit a rather large stone and sent the cabin reeling. Grandma Seilee jolted awake and shouted some incoherent commands. She heard her husband answer back but did not understand what he said. Once the cabin righted itself Maia patted the old woman’s hand and bade her to sleep again. Then her mother-in-law drew out her sewing kit and continued patching one of the children’s trousers. Kisha tried to recapture the dream, but it was gone. 

The stifling dark took over her thoughts and she began tapping her foot again. After a few minutes, Grandma Seilee raised one eyelid as a warning. Kisha stopped and her hand wandered towards the drapes. 

“Kisha!” A warning growl from the slumbering figure in the corner. The young woman frowned. Inside she wanted to draw up all the curtains and let in the light, the dust, and the smell of the animals along the road. Anything would be better than stench of old, sweating women bumping along in the cloaked carriage. They hung thick, black curtains around the inside of the wagon, not just to block curious and unfriendly eyes, but because Grandma Seilee liked it “as dark as night” so she could sleep. Other wagons drew their shades back during the ride and only closed them when they passed through farms or towns. Instead Kisha had married into the family that rode in the dark and she sat, minute after minute, hour after hour on the long tortuous ride that never ended. 

They finally stopped at an oasis on the North/South Road on their journey through the Purz desert. Palm and acacia trees grew nearby, providing precious shade for travelers. The spring, protected by a stone wall, bubbled out of the sand and formed a pond. The men maneuvered wagons and livestock into their familiar positions. The women waited expectantly inside for a word of release. Jasmine put on her slippers, Grandma Seilee braided her hair, and Maia picked up her scarf and wound it carefully around her head. Finally, Kisha’s husband lifted the flap and opened the door. 

Kisha stepped down on the hard, baked earth. It took a moment for her eyes to grow accustom to the bright light of the day, for the sun would not set for another hour. The children ran shouting to one another and darting in and out of the shadows. Kisha remembered when she was that age and longed to run about with them. Instead, she heard a sharp command at her side. Maia ordered her to set up the kitchen. Kisha carried the pots, chopping blocks, and utensils from their storage spots to the site her mother-in-law selected for their cooking. Without thinking, she unpacked their things and began a fire. All the while she breathed in the cool, clear air and watched the sky for birds. Twice her mother-in-law had to repeat orders, as Kisha’s mind was on the beauty of the evening and not on the tasks at hand. This did not bode well. By the time the stew was ready to eat, Maia was in a foul mood. The topic of that night’s dinner was Kisha and her many short comings. 

“I cannot have a daughter-in-law like this!” Maia threatened again. “All day long she fidgets in the cabin and when we do get out does she use her energy to make dinner? No! She day dreams!” 

Her husband would listen; he rarely said anything. Kisha supposed this was good. True, he did not defend her but neither did he say anything mean or nasty. Later, when they were alone in their tent he would say nothing. Twice in their short marriage he had asked her to try harder, but that was all. Now he only nodded, shook his head or stared blankly. 

Grandma Seilee inevitably joined in. “She should stay up each night like me! I stay up and tend to the animals, talk to the night watchmen, and keep hot tea on for whoever needs it. Then I sleep during the day. This is the way of traveling women! We do not need to sleep at night.” 

Everyone nodded to Grandma Seilee.  No one mentioned that it would be highly inappropriate for Kisha, a young, married woman, to chat with any watchmen alone in the night. 

When she was first married to Gof, Kisha did try to live like Grandma Seilee. Each night she tried to stay up later and later. Eventually her husband’s warm body and his regular breathing drew her down to sleep and before she knew it she was waking to another long day of traveling. She also marveled that Grandma Seilee could fall into a heavy sleep sitting upright in the carriage. Kisha would only nod off only to be jarred awake minutes later by her head falling into space. 

So the complaining went on into the night. Even through the washing up. Instead of searching the dishes for bits of baked on food, she scanned the starry night for fluttering black shapes. Her heart raced when she spotted the bats. Once she had even seen an owl soar silently through the camp. Some of the women took it as an omen but for Kisha, her heart soared along with it. How could such a magnificent creature be the bearer of ill news? 

“Kisha, Wake up! you missed a spot again!” Snapped Maia. Bringing the young woman out of her reverie. Her mother-in-law thrust a pan at her. Then her soapy hand went to her head and she scratched the side, spreading soap and water all over the beautiful scarf. Kisha gasped. “Oh, it’s all right Kisha, its only water.” the older woman grumbled. Kisha’s face burned, how could this woman be so cavalier with such a beautiful item? The scarf should be for best wear only, not for washing up and cooking, thought Kisha. 

Cleaning up the dishes took longer than usual and Maia left Kisha to prepare the items for the next morning’s breakfast. As she worked, Kisha watched the skies for flying creatures and later, as she made her way to her tent she watched the ground for scorpions, but for a different reason. As she passed her mother-in-law’s striped tent she paused and saw the beautiful blue scarf fluttering in the night breeze. Without a moment’s hesitation, Kisha picked the cloth from the drying line and tucked it in her sleeve.  

She made it to her tent, unseen and climbed inside. Her husband lay snoring on his side of the bed. She stowed the scarf in her traveling trunk and cuddled up to her husband. The chill of the night drew her closer to him and she curled against his broad back for warmth, and here she fell into a restless sleep with a smile on her face.

The next morning she was up before dawn. She quietly drew on her clothes and packed her trunk. By the time she ventured out of the tent she shared with her husband the sun glimmered gold on the horizon. Her soft brown eyes fringed with long black lashes gazed at the horizon as it melted the dark night into pale pink, like the flecks in the scarf. Her scarf. She did not wear it on her head but tucked in her voluminous sleeve. 

“Kisha, you are up early this morning.” Called Grandma Seilee from next to the camp fire. “Coffee, dear?” Although she stayed up all night, the old woman was at her best in the morning. Kisha smiled and accepted the bitter beverage. “A quiet night last night, although Maku saw a fox carrying one of her pups and the Pushta and his wife found their little daughter playing with a black scorpion.” she chuckled and Kisha looked up. “Don’t worry, the child was not harmed.” 

Kisha helped Grandma Seilee make the breakfast. Maia joined them for the meal and afterwards Jasmine and Kisha cleaned, repacked, and loaded the items back on the wagon. It was not until the men took down the tents that Maia discovered her loss. No alarm sounded. She just looked confused. 

“Gof, didn’t you see me hang my blue scarf out to dry last night or did I pack it in my box?” She asked while scratching her head. Now her fingers touched the plain, midnight blue of a day scarf. Her son shook his head and departed for the water wagon Kisha doubted her husband would ever notice such a trivial domestic task. 

When Maia asked Grandma Seilee, Kisha’s world changed in a minute. 

“Why don’t you ask Kisha? She looks awfully happy this morning, Maia.” Kisha’s face reddened. She glanced at Grandma Seilee and did not see a twinkle but a glare. She felt Maia’s eyes on her and glanced at the ground. 

“Where is it!” Her mother-in-law screamed “Where is it you ungrateful she-goat!” Her voice rang shrill and all movement in the bustling camp froze. 

Suddenly Grandma Seilee rose from her seat and her thin, bony hands grabbed Kisha’s arm like a falcon talons a pigeon. Her dark eyes burned into Kisha’s as she reached into the sleeve and withdrew the blue scarf. Kisha glanced at her sister-in-law and saw the blood run from her face. A hand slapped her face and the blow stung but not as much as the second hit from the other side. Grandma Seilee joined  Maia as they hit her on the face and arms as she tried to block their blows until the men drew them apart. 

Story Continues with The Runner: The Sentencing

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