A Suitable Offering (Part One) by Shona Kinsella
The cruel, red sun beat down on the back of Amondi’s neck as she bent over the chicken she was plucking, feathers falling listlessly to the dusty ground. Amondi stretched and swiped her arm across her forehead, pushing her stool backwards into the ever-shrinking shade before returning to her task. As her fingers deftly pulled feathers from the chicken, Amondi worried. For weeks, they had all been waiting for the rain, assuring each other it would start any day now, but still the land thirsted under the sun with no sign of relief. Each day, Amondi’s brother and father had to travel further to find water for the family and the herd.
A shroud of dust lay over the unusually quiet village, the woven huts sagging under the weight of the heat. Even the cold-blooded sand-crawlers sought shade from the relentless sun. Amondi’s loose, wrap-around dress stuck to her skin and beads of sweat gathered in her hair where it was wound close to her skull.
When the chicken was finally free of feathers, Amondi took it inside the hut that served as their home and deboned it, wrapping all but the choicest portion in palm leaves which she then buried in the still-warm embers of the fire to cook. She tucked the best part of the chicken into a basket and covered it with palm leaves before adding some pawpaw and a corn flour cake. She sipped from the cup of water on the table; all that remained until Father and Duma returned.
Amondi hurried out of the hut and left the village, following a dry, cracked path towards the empty river bed. A dozing wyvern lay across the path and she carefully stepped around it. They were not generally dangerous to the Emeni, but they could be aggressive when startled. Once past, she went faster, eager to carry out her errand and return before Father and Duma. As she walked, she muttered a string of prayers under her breath, beseeching Vash, the Creator, to bring the rain.
When she reached the channel that the river flowed through during rainy season, Amondi hiked up her skirt and knelt in the dust. She leaned forward until her forehead touched the ground, singing of the greatness of the Creator. It was an old song, one she had learned from her grandfather, the Nganzu of the village until his death five years ago. There had been no Nganzu since then and not many people still sang the old songs.
Amondi straightened up and scooped some dirt into her hands, holding it up to show Vash their need. She used her hands to dig a shallow hole in the river bed, close to the centre.
“I give so that you may give,” Amondi said, laying the corn flour cake into the hole.
She repeated the phrase as she gently placed each of the items she had brought into the hole. When her basket was empty, she removed one of her bead necklaces and laid it on top of the food.
“Oh Vash, look upon the suffering of your land and feel pity in your heart for us. Please accept these offerings and send the rain.”
Amondi filled in the hole, covering the food so that animals would not disturb the offering, then climbed to her feet and started back towards the village, thinking as she walked. Her grandfather had taught her that they made offerings to the Creator in order to renew the flow of energy, allowing Vash to continue to create. It also served to remind the Emeni people that life was a gift and so they gave gifts in return. As Nganzu, Grandfather had been responsible for keeping them in the good graces of the Creator.
Amondi missed her grandfather, but she was lucky; sometimes he came to her in the space between sleeping and waking. The ancestors used to visit her people more frequently but times were changing and, like many others, the Emeni were moving away from the old ways and the wisdom of the ancestors.
Hurrying between two of the huts on the edge of the village, Amondi nearly bowled over her friend, Garnet.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Garnet asked, laughing and gripping Amondi’s shoulders to steady them both, her wooden bracelets clicking together merrily.
“Just home. I have some chores to attend to before Father and Duma return. How was the foraging?” Amondi said.
“So-so.” Garnet made a see-sawing gesture with her hand. “I brought you back some tubers, but the fruit is all starting to dry up. Things could get bad if the rain doesn’t come soon.”
“I know. Every day I pray that Vash will send rain.”
“Do you really think He hears you?” Garnet asked, a quizzical expression on her fine features.
“I have to believe that He does,” Amondi answered.
“Then why doesn’t He pay attention? Why hasn’t He sent the rain?”
“Perhaps I just haven’t found a suitable offering yet.” Amondi chewed her lower lip. “If my grandfather were here, he would tell us what to do.”
Garnet glanced around, as if checking that there was no one nearby before stepping in close to Amondi. “I overheard the Chief talking to some of the elders,” she said in a low voice. “He says if the rain doesn’t come soon, we may have to leave the village. Go to the floating city and ask the Osenai for help.”
“We can’t do that! You know what their help costs.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard. Don’t say anything, we’re not supposed to know.”
“Let me know if you hear anything else,” Amondi said then hurried away, her head down.
The goats were no longer giving milk and their babies were dying. Everything was parched. Amondi found that the thirst never quite left her now. Her lips were cracked and painful, her skin dull.
“Enough of the herd have died already,” her father said, frowning at her. “We cannot spare another right now.”
“It wouldn’t be called a sacrifice if it was easy,” Amondi countered. “We must show our devotion to Vash. Give Him cause to help us.”
“And what will we eat after you have thrown away all of our food?”
Amondi gasped. She couldn’t believe her father could speak about offerings in this manner. “Would you say such things if it was the Nganzu asking?”
Her father shook his head and turned away from her before speaking. “There is no Nganzu. And no Creator, either.”
Amondi stood rooted to the spot with shock, unable to even call after her father when he walked away. The problems in her village ran deeper than she thought if her father could deny the existence of their Creator.
END OF PART ONE