When Osarah and I finally lie sweaty in our bed that night, I know that when the three moons align we will have a baby.
Osarah looks back at me. Smiling. The wetness of her face is lined by the cold light of the moon shining outside our window.
She can feel it too. She knows it like I know it.
“What shall we name it?” she asks. She takes my hand and gently kisses my knuckles one by one.
“I don’t know yet,” I lie. I hope she can’t feel my lie like she feels our child coming into existence.
I have thought of a thousand different names for our future children. Ever since our eyes first met. But right now, right at this moment when I should be the most happy, I am terrified.
Terrified of the moment when Osarah and I will hunt down the animal that bears our child and kill it. Will my aim be good enough to wound it without hurting our child? Will my hands shake as I cut its belly open and pry the baby out of its innards, slick with blood?
Osarah wraps her arms around me, sensing my fear. Her heat becomes my heat. Her cheek presses against my shoulder.
“It’ll be alright,” she assures me. “I’ll be there too.” Huddled like this, we let our minds travel to the valley, to a herd of sharpsnoots. Inside the belly of a special one, that’s grazing on the tender night leaves.
Ah, there! We both think. That’s the one. That’s our baby.
Now, we wait.
I am the child of a sharpsnoot too. No, not her child. She was not my mother. Only the vessel from which my parents gave birth to me. We all come from a vessel, and it’s not always the same species of animal. But our parents are always humans, and so are we.
We belong to our parents.
It is a delicate balance, but one that can’t be avoided. We are all interconnected. Our pregnancies and birthing run through the entire animal world. We call it the Body. The collective body of nature. I have heard of children born of trees, but I’ve never met one.
We hunt to survive and to bring our children to life, but no more than necessary. We keep some plants for grain and fruit but not animals. The children might become confused and mistake them for the vessels that bore them. Might call them mothers.
They are not their mothers.
I touch the scar high up on my thigh, where my leg meets the gentle curve of my hip. My father’s knife gave me this scar after he missed with his arrows.
I survived. But many of us don’t.
The nightstrider is already dead when Nipe slices its belly and pries her daughter out. Its jaw hangs open, its eyes glassy and bloodshot.
“Watch me now, Sali,” Nipe tells me. Her face is speckled with rain and with blood from poking into the nightstrider’s insides. “You don’t want to kill your baby, when it’s time.”
I shiver and lean in closer, obediently. My hand is resting on my own belly. Even though it is empty of child, I can feel my baby growing. The feeling is inside of me but also not. Still, it is as strong as if the baby were squirming inside my body. Somewhere back in our house, Osarah is feeling the same.
Nipe is done carving the nightstrider; milk and blood dampen the soil. A smell I recognize from the buried memory of my own birth.
Did I cry when they pulled me from her insides? Would her animal children recognize me now?
Mosun is on the other side of the clearing. His body seems relaxed, propped against his spear, but his big eyes are scanning the woods for the rest of the pack.
The nightstrider had young ones, her real children, that will soon come out of their lair seeking their mother. Seeking meat and prey. Ravenous and angry. A dozen of them maybe, judging by the size of her. It was breeding season one moon ago.
Nipe is as deft with the blade as I am; that’s why it was decided between Mosun and herself that she would be the one to bring their daughter into the world. Mosun did his part too. He helped corner the nightstrider and speared it in the back of the head. Gave it a clean and fast death without harming their baby.
I was not allowed to participate in their daughter’s birth, of course. I watched from afar, hidden in the tall grass, until I was called to observe Nipe’s work. Nipe and Mosun honor me by letting me be here, so I try to take in as much as possible. Soon I’ll have to do this myself.
“This one will be special,” Nipe says. She holds the baby’s body with reverence as she cleans her, trying to make her cry for the very first time.
I know what she means. There are not many nightstriders in these parts. They usually pass through to the Great Valley in the north, where food is plentiful. That’s what this mother tried to do with her young ones. To be born of such a vessel means the child will grow up to be fast and determined, if perhaps a little too headstrong. A natural leader.
When the baby cries, her voice is piercing.
Her wails sound not quite human. Not baby-like. Something of the animal always lingers during the first few days. But this is something else. Desperate. Like she is calling her animal siblings to save her. But they are not her siblings, just like the dead mother is not her mother.
“Hurry!” Mosun cries from the edge of the forest. “I think they are coming.”
We see them. The pack. They are children too, little more than babies. But they are many. Their eyes gleam between the dark of the trees and the rain like stars. As they approach, their teeth look bigger and bigger. Their mouths, already half the size of their entire bodies.
They scream back.
“Go!” Mosun grabs his spear and throws it at them. He comes to us and hoists the dead nightstrider on his back. Nipe fastens their baby to her chest and starts for the village.
I lag behind, letting them get a head start, and lift my bow towards the woods. The pups move sinuously through the tall grass. I count almost twenty. It won’t be hard for them to kill me if I stay too long. Their sharp teeth can tear away my flesh before I blink. But they are not confident enough yet. That’s what they need their mother for.
“Come on!” I hear Nipe yelling at me.
But I don’t go to them. I cut through the tall grass to the west, away from Nipe.
Jagged rocks jut through the soil. I keep them close as I run, counting the paces in my mind.
I hear the pups behind me. Their bony legs click.
One of them jumps out of the tall grass in front of me. I take a step back and raise my bow. The pup looks at me. It looks at what is in my hand. I stretch my bow and aim. Its tremendous jaws are spread apart, still crying for its mother. Smelling her blood in the air.
Smelling her human baby.
“She is not your sister,” I say.
I release. The arrow grazes the pup’s ear. It howls and pulls back, giving one last piercing scream before it leaves for the woods and the Great Valley beyond.
I hurry after Nipe and Mosun, following the not-quite-human wails of their baby.
The thin lips of Alesio, our priest, move in a silent chant as he pours dirt over the baby’s belly and blesses her.
Mosun and Nipe’s child is unharmed but still shocked from the birthing. The memory of being inside the nightstrider’s womb is still warm in her mind.
When she cries again, Alesio winces.
“What kind of beast is this?” he whispers to Mosun and Nipe, but we all hear him. Mosun, ashamed, scuttles from his spot by the altar to cradle her in his arms. But she can’t be consoled.
The whole village is there, around the fire. Osarah’s hand holds my own, tight. The next child on Alesio’s altar will be ours. This thought brings our bodies closer, quickens our breath.
“Have you thought of a name yet?” Osarah says softly to my ear. Her green eyes light up with the rest of her face.
I shake my head. I have thought of many other things. Of the dead nightstrider and Nipe’s relentless knife slicing her belly. Of the pup’s eyes, full of fear, searching for the wailing baby. But most of all, the baby’s howling cries. They have not changed yet. They still don’t sound human enough.
What if they never do?
I squeeze Osarah’s hand and make myself smile back. “A flower or a bird?” I ask.
She gives me a disappointed look.
“Neither,” she says. “I want something special.”
Alesio’s prayers tell the story of an era when we carried our children ourselves. When we arrived to this world, fresh and ignorant, and stood separate from it. All living things shared one single breath. It was the Body revealing itself to our ancestors. We stood on top of the Body, walked around it, dove into its guts, yet we did not see it.
But all things change, and so did we. Soon, being separate was not a choice we could make anymore. We ate the food of this world; we drank its water and killed its beasts. We disturbed the order of things. And the Body noticed and called us its children too. Slowly and painfully we became part of it. At first the change was not successful. We suffered because we resisted. Our ancestors were afraid of the change. But when we let it burrow inside our bodies, settle, grow roots and veins, life started becoming beautiful again.
But not easy. Never easy.
When Alesio is done with the blessings, he turns and leaves without a second look. He doesn’t pause to accept the parents’ gift placed at his feet. Have the baby’s cries disturbed him that much?
Nipe takes the nightstrider’s hide from her satchel and wraps the baby in it.
Only then does the baby calm and finally fall asleep.
Each of us keeps our vessel’s hide with us throughout our lives. In dark times, it has the power to comfort us.
“Just like a mother’s arms,” Osarah says, and I know it will do the same for our child.
Our child’s heartbeat is a thump in our ears. A weight on top of our chests. A shiver down our spines.
That’s how I know something is wrong. When I hear the crushing silence.
Osarah gets up and runs. She leaves our house, the village, behind her and runs towards the muddy river, to the small valley where the sharpsnoots graze.
I grab my bow and dash behind her.
When we reach the edge of the forest, I can smell the fresh blood. I glance at the trees, and I instantly know my mistake.
The nightstrider pups did not make it to the Great Valley without their mother guiding them. They stayed here, looking for prey.
Osarah is already gone from my sight. The herd of sharpsnoots is over the other side of the mountain towards the east.
Suddenly I don’t want to follow her. A moment ago I wanted to know what happened to my child. Our child. Now, my feet start to feel like rocks. I am scared, but I make myself go. I make my arms pull me upwards all the way to the top of the mountain, even though my body screams for me to give up.
It might have been born already, our baby—I tell myself this lie to keep my body moving. It has happened before for a child to be born early. If it is born, then we can’t feel it in our bodies anymore.
It might be hard on the baby to be born so soon, but it will survive. Osarah will hunt and I will stay inside and—
Osarah is at the edge of the cliff. Her body is already folding on itself. I run to her and hold her. Keep her away from the very edge as she staggers.
Then I look over her shoulder at the gaping expanse underneath.
Every sharpsnoot I see is either slaughtered on the slope or drowned at the river that’s swollen from the rains, trying to escape the ravenous nightstriders.
There is no sign of a pregnant sharpsnoot, not from what I see. It wasn’t their breeding season. On the river, dead animals still float, caught between rocks. Most of them have been carried downstream by the currents.
I can’t see them anymore. And I can’t feel our baby.
Osarah is still curled in my arms, cold and round as a stone, but I can’t feel what she feels. Not anymore. What brought us close is now gone.
I have my grief and she has hers. Together but separate. Not even the Body can mend that.
Every year, when the rains leave, most of our food vanishes too. The sharpsnoots had fed us in the past, when times were lean, but now they are dead. Killed by the nightstriders. It’s not time for the reaping. There are a few animals in the valley, but the nightstriders still roam free, those that survived.
Two of our own come back wounded hunting a sharpsnoot in the forest. The sharpsnoot died. It was not arrows that killed it but nightstrider teeth.
Osarah sleeps by my side but doesn’t kiss my hands anymore, doesn’t smile. She only stares at the ceiling, as if trying to find our child somewhere inside her mind.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“Not now,” she says. “I think I feel something.”
I want to tell her I have a name for the child. It came to me in a dream. But when I woke up, I remembered there was no child to give the name to.
I keep the name and the dream to myself and prepare to leave the house to forage. I need to look for worms, mushrooms, anything else I can find. I am better with my knife than my bow, but I take that as well in case a bird appears, out in the open space where no danger can hide.
When I open the door, there are berries and cursom leaves left on the doorstep. It’s not much, but it is all people have now, and they are giving it to us. The villagers feel sorry for us. I can see pity in their faces every time our paths cross.
Nipe and Mosun, on the other hand, are not so lucky. The people avoid passing by their house and look away when they see them coming back from the hunt.
I never see their child now. They keep her inside all the time. But sometimes I hear her cry in the night. I know why they keep her out of sight. It’s not safe for her to be seen. There’s something simmering in the village. Something worse than scorn. A rumor that the baby has grown nightstrider teeth.
I take the food and head for their house. The village seems empty. Everyone is out scavenging and foraging. The weak stay inside. But some gather every day in Alesio’s house. What they are talking about, I do not know. But every time I see all of them together, weapons in hand, whispering to each other, my chest tightens.
I know the villagers are about to do something terrible, and soon.
When I knock at the door, it takes time for Nipe to open it. And when she does, I almost don’t recognize her. Her cheeks are hollow, and darkness nestles under her eyes. She has the nightstrider’s pelt wrapped around her torso all the time, to comfort the baby. Behind her there is darkness, not even the light of a candle. I hold up the food.
“You need this more than us,” I say.
“The baby doesn’t drink my milk,” she replies instead.
I stand there, not knowing what to say.
“That’s because you are not her mother.”
Alesio’s voice comes from behind me. He and a few others have surrounded the house. Mosun is with them.
“The child is not human,” Alesio says. “Look at the destruction she and her kind brought to us. You must return her.”
“You can’t do that,” I say. “She’ll die.”
Then others take a few steps towards the house. Towards me.
“You of all people should know,” an old woman spits.
They are pale from malnourishment, their eyes wild with fear. They look more like a pack of wild beasts than any nightstrider ever did.
Mosun seems weak too. He doesn’t meet my eyes.
“I birthed her myself,” Nipe says. “I heard her first cries. She is mine.”
What if, I think. What if she is both? She is of the Body, like all of us, and she belongs to it as much as all of us. She could belong to two different worlds. In the end, they are still one.
Alesio’s face is calm like the surface of a lake. There are ripples underneath, if you know where to look.
“I have spoken to the Body and the Body has spoken to me. The child must be returned.”
He is lying. The Body doesn’t speak to us like this. But there is no point in talking to these people. Alesio has made up his mind, ever since he laid eyes on the child.
I squeeze the grip of my bow.
Osarah is still inside our house and can’t feel me. She can’t sense that I am calling her with my heart. I am screaming for her to come, but we are no longer connected in that way.
“Alesio,” Mosun pleads. “I’ll hunt the beasts myself. I’ll kill them all.”
A couple of the others have come close to the door and are trying to get inside. Nipe is holding them back.
“That won’t make the child less of a beast.”
I think of Osarah back home, and I hope she understands why I am doing this. I hope she forgives me.
“Wait,” I say. I grab Alesio by the shoulder. “What if we leave? The four of us?”
Alesio looks at me, curious. “Leave?”
Mosun looks at me confused.
“Yes,” I say. My stomach feels rancid. What if Osarah says no? What then? “We four will take the child and leave. More food for everyone else.”
“Where we will go?” Mosun shakes his head, helpless.
“To the Great Valley.”
If it’s not safe to hunt outside the village, then the Great Valley is certain death. But there are other villages far up north on the other side of the valley, and there’s food if we survive long enough.
For the first time, Alesio’s lips curl to a smile.
He will be happy to be rid of us.
I find Osarah looking out the window. When she sees me, she smiles like before. As if nothing has happened. I smile back, as if nothing is happening now, but my heart is heavy.
“I must ask you a question,” I say the moment I come inside.
Osarah comes to me and hugs me. Her arms, tight around my neck and shoulders.
“It’s okay. I know,” she says. Her voice has a joyful lilt to it. Has the sadness made her forget? “We are leaving.”
When she relaxes her embrace I look at a bundle next to the bed. It’s all the food we have and some clothes. Her bow and spear lie next to them.
“I had a dream while you were away.” She squeezes my hand as if I should know. “It will be okay.”
Our closeness makes me feel like we are one again, if in a different way. The weight slowly lifts from my shoulders because now I believe: we will make it to the valley.
The baby looks gaunt, but no strange teeth sprout from her mouth. Nipe is holding her tight against her chest as we walk towards the woods. The pelt lies on her shoulders, always. She is weak but her movements are fluid, as though the nightstrider’s soul has touched her too. We stop from time to time, trying to get the baby to suckle her breast, but she drinks very little and turns away. We move again.
Nipe has her bow ready and Mosun has his spear. I have my knife, the one thing I am really good at, but I doubt it will be of much use until the danger comes close. Then it might be too late.
I look at Osarah, marching through the forest without fear. I wonder if it was a dream that made me say the words Great Valley before. Perhaps we were still connected in a way.
“Stop,” Nipe orders. And we stop even though none of us knows why.
Nipe peers through the woods. The child is alert in her arms but doesn’t cry.
Soon enough the nightstriders appear. They have grown double since I saw them last. Their heads are still enormous, but their bodies are catching up. Not twenty anymore. No matter how strong, some did not make it. I glance at the baby, afraid she is going to start wailing and draw them closer, but she stays quiet.
It is Nipe that starts howling instead. Mosun follows. My skin crawls at how similar to the beasts their howls are. Like their child is changing them, instead of the other way around.
The nightstriders run towards us like shadows chased away by the sun. Before Osarah and I can make a stand they are here. A leap’s worth of distance away from any of us. My hands are shaking but I hold my knife up. It is half the size of one of their canines. One of them takes a step forward and whines at me. Is it the same one as the last time our paths crossed? I am not sure.
What I know is that we are changing. Nipe and Mosun, and Osarah and I too. I know by the way Nipe and Mosun are watching me. By how Osarah stands calm, arrows still in the quiver. By how my own hand doesn’t grip the knife hard enough and slowly goes down.
“They are coming with us to the Great Valley,” Nipe says. “Keep your bodies low and your eyes forward.”
The young nightstriders follow us as we leave the woods and our old land behind. They follow their sister. Their soft steps are still behind us when we cross the river, now thinning and shallow. They never approach more than they already have, nor attack us, even though at night I hear their jaws chomping on smaller animals’ flesh.
There are other sounds too. Animals big and small, and some for which I have no name. But Nipe assures me we are protected. We stop and pick up mushrooms and berries and anything we can find without using our weapons. We eat and we sleep, and the next day, a little after the break of dawn, we are greeted by a great opening through the mountains. The sky is so vast and the light of the sun so piercing I grasp Osarah’s hand for comfort.
When our fingers brush I remember bits of a name that came to me in the dream. Osarah smiles and leans on me. My body tightens with something like anticipation.
Above us in the horizon there are streaks of smoke. There are villages behind hillocks. We can’t see them yet, but we will soon. If we keep moving.
But we won’t.
Before the villages, and the little fires, and whatever lies beyond those hills, there are herds of sharpsnoots grazing at the low leaves and digging at the earth for worms.
Osarah becomes stiff and tugs at my hand. Not far away, there is a cluster of bushes, thick and tall. She doesn’t have to tell me where to go. The sharpsnoots stop their grazing and look up, impassively. Nipe and Mosun stay where they are.
There is the ghost of a heartbeat in my ears. The breath of someone who isn’t me on my neck. A name dances at the edge of my lips, but I can’t bring myself to speak it.
We are outside of the Body because we are born, but the Body is still inside of us. We are of the Body always.
And when we disturb the peace, it watches.
We find the child inside a shallow hole on the ground, covered in dirt and sticks. He is a moon younger than Nipe and Mosun’s daughter, but he looks bigger and more well-fed. He wakes up once he hears the noise and stares up at us with Osarah’s green eyes. Confused and scared of us.
There are other eyes watching us too. His mother is right on the other side of the hole, hissing at us. Not a vessel. His mother.
Osarah’s cheeks gleam. She starts to bend towards our baby, her arms already shaped into an embrace, but I stop her.
“You know we can’t take him,” I say. “Soon he’ll come to know us. We have to be patient.”
She nods and smiles despite her tears.
“What is his name?” she asks me.
“Belsari,” I say.
Of the Body.