Fari sat in the dimness and sighed. Feeling along the well-worn velvet of the tablecloth, Fari searched for the beads. Having found them by touch, the work began. Rufa would be home soon. Rufa’s return meant food and conversation, a welcome prospect. Perhaps Rufa would spin a tale of the wilderness, the giant trees and the angry beasts. It was just as likely, however, that Rufa would be sullen and withdrawn, having found no help from the lord on the hunt.
Fari hoped that Ziz was finding God’s fortune in town. Town. The word called seductively to Fari, speaking of exotic people and goods. Fari imagined the people in a "town," people from far-off lands trading stories even better than those of Fari’s brothers. Another sigh, another bead on the string. Ziz said that many admired the beaded belts that he brought to market, and they did certainly seem to sell. This thought brought a smile. At least there was comfort in the pride of the work. Thoughts of belts from their home travelling the world on the bodies of strangers gave Fari a warm glow. A pity the glow wasn’t strong enough to light the dim room.
After a bit, Fari rose, fingers cramped from beading. Perhaps a search was in order. Starting in an adjacent room, Fari crept through the darkness of the ancient house, fingers alert, searching for small bits that could be used as bead or thread. The brothers’ house was a treasure chest of ancient frippery, offering unknown and barely seen wealths of decorative materials. Fari had never known the relatives that had built this place, having been only an infant during the salvation that had led the planet to close itself to the sin of the universe for good. With the flight of the rest of the family, all three of them had simply been left to scratch out an existence in the wilderness and the farm, searching for bits of finery in the mansion they called their home.
Fari started with the complaint of the outer door. Rufa had returned!
"Hai, small one."
Fari absorbed the affectionate buffeting of the large hand that appeared in the gloom.
"Praise Jemmal, I’ve had luck!" he announced. "Meat for supper, and berries for dessert!"
Fari clucked piously at Rufa for the sacrilege of mentioning luck, but scampered happily off with the offered prizes to prepare them for supper.
"Will Ziz be here for our meal?" came the call from the kitchen.
"Ayah," affirmed Rufa, settling in a large chair. "We’ll see if he matched my blessing."
After setting the meat with spices and vegetables to stew, Fari bounced back to the sitting room and into Rufa’s lap.
"Tell me of your day!"
Rufa sighed indulgently and leaned back. "Ah, little brother, ever the curious mind"
"Did you see a Prophet?"
Rufa stiffened. "No. I was not so blessed"
The Prophets had come when Fari was but a babe. Proclaiming the new truth, they had rid the world of sin and the devils that promoted it. Fari didn’t remember any of it, and had always listened to the stories with a mixture of fascination and guilt. It sounded so grand and exciting, mysterious and forbidden.
The brothers would never explain what the "sin" had been or who the "devils" were. Fari only knew that it was the Prophets who rid all the inhabitants of Faldor from the burden of new children, the trial that unfortunately Rufa and Ziz had not escaped. Fari’s brothers had felt the burden of raising Fari from an infant, and Fari was determined to repay them. The Prophets taught that such work was a drain on the soul of man, and distracted him from his goals. Fari had always tried to be as good as possible to compensate. Fari knew that a life in the dark was the penance for the wrong done to the brothers.
This must be why Rufa showed fear whenever the Prophets were mentioned. He certainly feared for his soul after the struggle he was forced to endure. With this thought, Fari stopped talking, sobered.
The outer door screamed again.
"Brothers, a visitor," Ziz called from the stoop. Fari and Rufa stood, peering curiously into the night. Ziz appeared, outlined by the starglow, with another figure by his side.
Fari scurried to the kitchen to bring drinks. Behind, in the sitting room a conversation began. The conversation, however, turned heated as Fari poured and measured, skimped and scraped to get as much juice from the berries as possible.
A visitor! How fine! Fari thought. They never had visitors from the town. Occasionally a neighbor would come for business, but Fari was usually asked to leave the room, being too young for negotiations, and a shame to the family, as a child. Not this time! "The juice will be an excuse to go in and stay," Fari thought happily and found the good glasses.
"Dangerous!" bellowed Rufa’s voice, penetrating through the heavy stone.
"Best chance!" replied Ziz with equal heat
Fari listened to the low, measured syllables of the stranger with an ear to the wall. The words were indistinct, but seemed to communicate a serious urgency. Fari carefully poured juice and crept into the sitting room.
In the darkness, the visitor was a marvel, a man with shining hair and strange clothes. Fari drunk in the sight hungrily, noting pattern and shape, the tools on his belt, the darkness of his skin. Afraid to be seen and sent away, Fari set the drinks down quietly and retreated to a corner. The discussion continued.
"You haven’t any idea how rare it is for an offworlder to be allowed to land!" Ziz was saying.
"That’s precisely why it is so dangerous!" Rufa replied, glaring suspiciously at the visitor. "They’ll watch his every move, scrutinize him to his soul!"
Offworlder! Fari’s insides thrummed in delight and fear. A pagan for sure, but so strong and handsome! Why had he come to their home?
"Look, he knows already" Ziz said firmly.
Rufa’s eyes went wild with fear. "You told him?" he demanded, fists shaking in rage.
Fari retreated farther into the corner, further frightened and unsure. Why was brother so mad?
"He already knew" said Ziz quietly. "He approached me. Some one of the others must have slipped, drank too much and talked or.." and here he paused, "..been caught."
Rufa stared desolately at an indeterminate point in the gloom, body gone slack, powerful arms hanging limp. The visitor finally spoke:
"I must take Fari away" he said, voice light and clear. "It is the only chance."
Bewitched and distraught by the situation, Fari leapt from the corner, forgetting any idea of hiding.
"Away? What? To where? I can’t leave!"
All three men turned, startled, and looked at the small figure in the meager light of the room.
"Ah," said the stranger. "Such a beautiful girl."
* * *
The next hour was a blur to Fari. Her brothers fought and debated, cried and carried on. She was still stunned by the offworlder’s word: "girl". She had only heard it a few times, and then as an epithet. She wasn’t sure what a "girl" was, but deep inside that it was not a good thing. The strange man continued to talk using odd words, and worse, some that she knew were blasphemy.
"You have protected her well, but soon someone will notice," the offworlder said. "She is approaching puberty, soon her body will betray her, and you." He looked affectionately, if sadly, at Fari. "Others have been caught hiding the last females. Their fate has been unpleasant."
"We can protect her!" Rufa protested. "We always have!"
"Will you keep her in the dark her whole life?" The stranger asked. "Is this the fate you want for your sister? Waiting in dim light so no one can see her?" He paused. "If I take her offworld, she can join your family, the ones who fled. The whole universe is not controlled by the Pi. Not all share their worship of the asexual divine. She can live a real life, and understand what she is"
Fari trembled in disbelief and fear. Her whole life was disintegrating before her eyes. The argument raged around her. She curled up under the table, like a cat, repeating to herself the mantra her brothers had taught her: "Better never to be seen, better never to be seen."
She must have fallen asleep to the sound of her own chanting, for she awoke some time later to Rufa’s sad face. "They’re right" he said. "We must go."
Fari was bundled roughly into a heavy coat, and hustled outside to a waiting wagon. The old engined choked and finally caught, Rufa and Fari sitting hunched in the back. She held tight to her brother, frightened to be outside.
"Tell me what is going on," She begged.
Rufa sighed, and began to explain.
"Our ‘Prophets’ are actually starfarers from another part of the galaxy," he began. "They came to our planet as missionaries, before you were even born. They began in a friendly fashion, offering new farming techniques and technology that we did not have. They only asked to stay and tell us about their religion. They did us no harm and helped to educate the children, so we began to trust them. Their attitude changed over time, however. They began interfering with young people, trying to convince them not to marry, telling the men that the women were evil. They formed clubs for only men, where they spent hours talking about the bad things women had done."
Fari trembled under the weight of so much heresy, but kept still, willing her brother to go on. After a moment, he did.
"It seems that their religion worshipped an asexual god who wanted all beings to forgo the temptations of procreation so as to devote more time to the perfection of self. Only through abstinence and solitude could men reach heaven, they taught. The aliens, themselves hermaphroditic, had forgone having children centuries before, and therefore now relied on colonization and missionary work to keep their religion going.
When they arrived at our planet, they had no special prejudice against women. However, they soon decided, that in our species it was the female that was most concerned with the young and who has the most drive to procreate. They believed this to be the mark of the devil, and decide that all women were evil. This is why they did what they did." Here Rufa paused again. Obviously pained by memory.
Fari asked in a small voice, "What did they do, brother?"
Rufa looked away. "They started killing all the women. They used all of the connections they had made on our planet. The men they had recruited, the schools where girls were sent, the technology that ran our transportation systems. A few escaped, some of our family among them, and some fought for, and with the women, but in the end, all were gone."
He looked down fondly at Fari. "Or at least, that’s what they thought. Some of us had infants in the family, too young for space travel, but girls nonetheless. We hid you, and other families did the same. We called you ‘brother’, and forced you to live in the dark, for fear others would see you were a girl." He frowned. "But the Prophets have learned of this situation, and will search all children under the age of ten. We must send you to your mother, small one." He reached down to tousle her hair again, tears in his eyes. "You must be safe."
They had reached the field where the pilot had landed. Rufa explained that he was part of an organization that rescued girls from planets the Pi had "saved." He couldn’t stay long, only as long as his delivery of electrical components could be assumed to take. Fari gazed wonderingly at the foreign craft on the field.
"They’ll be here soon, my dear," the offworlder said kindly, and crouched down to talk to her face to face. "They will scan my hold for stowaways and other contraband, so we must put you to sleep and seal you in a crate." He motioned to a stack of empty boxes. "Machines inside will fool their sensors, and we can escape. Then, you will go to see your mother." He handed her a folded piece of paper. "That’s a letter from her, and a picture. Look child, see who will greet you with joy."
Fari opened the package. Inside was a thick piece of paper like a card, with a picture of a person, more beautiful than any that Fari had ever imagined. She had shining hair and a face, why a face that looked like her own. She wore a beautiful dress covered in beads. Fari started. The picture moved! The offworlder put a hand on her shoulder. "No fear, little one, it’s what we call an active photo." Fari looked. In the picture her mother stood up and opened her arms, beckoning Fari to her. Fari stared.
"Are you ready to go now?" The offworlder asked. Fari nodded, then wailed: "But what about my brothers?" she clung to Rufa.
"Peace, child." Smiled Rufa through his tears. "We will be fine, and feel better knowing you are safe." He embraced her fiercely and pushed her toward the box. "Go and live happy." Fari fled with the offworlder, and didn’t look back.
On the ship, flying through space toward another life, Fari dreamed of her mother, holding the picture tightly against her chest.
On the ground, Rufa screamed in the grip of a Prophet. "The ship," it hissed. "It carried devils to their escape!"
"I know nothing of it!" he moaned. "I was just helping load the freighter!"
"We will see," said the alien. "Aren’t you one with a young brother? Let us to your home to examine him."
"Ah, but you can’t," panted Rufa, looking up at the fast-moving star. "He died last season."
Later the Prophets would wonder at Rufa as he continued to smile throughout all the punishment that the wrath of God demanded he receive.
Bio:"I am a Professor, Translator and Mother of a two-year old. I don't have much free time, but when I do, I read science fiction, and sometimes give it a try myself. I have published professionally and twice before in Aphelion including "The Protection of the Fire Gryphon." As a real rookie, I appreciate all comments and criticisms. Thanks for reading."
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