Bricks and Sunlight
by M. K. Hutchins
“Should I run and tell mother now that you’re not getting married today, Ara?”
Ara groaned and rolled off her mat onto the cool, mud-brick floor. “Good morning to you, too, Esha.”
Esha, her younger sister, stared at her with large, expectant eyes. Despite the early hour, her black hair was already plaited in a lovely crown. Esha always looked perfect.
“Will you help me dress?” Ara ran her hands through her own ratty hair. If today ended in shambles, she might as well look half-decent when it did.
Esha wrinkled her nose. “Why bother? You’re not getting married. I know you don’t love him — the goddess’ gift will protect you from this wedding.”
That’s what she was afraid of. She wanted this marriage.
Perhaps she could ask the priest to skip that part of the ceremony. Impossible. All brides and grooms passed through the Goddess’ Veil. If you loved someone else more, the veil would block you from entering the temple. No one should marry against their heart, the Goddess claimed.
Ara wished she didn’t have a heart to betray her.
Someone pounded on the doorframe, shaking the curtain hanging there. “Lazy girls!” Aunt Imim yelled. “Wedding day or not, you leeches haven’t made breakfast!”
A typical greeting from Aunt Imim. Yesterday she’d called them snakes, the day before scorpions, and before that, locusts. She was a bounteous well of insults.
Ara pulled a grumbling Esha into the brick courtyard where they fanned the fire and made dough for flat rounds of barley bread. Mother and Father already awaited them at the temple, fasting and praying for Ara’s long and happy marriage.
Uncle Gur snatched up the first round of bread, then spat out his first bite. “Bland! Good thing your husband-to-be has never tasted your cooking.”
“He’s already seen her face,” Grandmother laughed. She sat on the courtyard steps, mending someone’s skirt. “If that didn’t scare him off, why would poor cooking?”
Esha tensed, but Ara laid a hand on her shoulder to stop her from retaliating. Talking back would mean a switching. The family always insulted her — what did a few more matter? It was like tossing a bucket of water into the Great River.
“It’s your wedding day,” Esha grumbled.
And that would transform her relatives?
Uncle Gur whacked Esha upside the head. “Don’t mumble! It’s not becoming.”
Neither is hitting your niece, but Ara silently gritted her teeth.
“It makes you sound like a flea-bitten urchin,” Grandma agreed.
Maybe Ara would have shouted back if only Grandmother and Uncle Gur had been home, but Aunt Imim was meanest with the switch.
At least the bread was finished. “Come.” Ara lead her sister back to their room, then inspected her head. “How do you feel?”
Ara gently redid Esha’s hair. “You’ll be able to marry soon. Leave this house forever.”
“I’ll just come visit you and Damgar,” Esha grinned.
Ara’s gut knotted. Damgar: the young man who loved her, not the young man who’d be waiting for her at the temple this afternoon.
Ara sat quietly while Esha did her hair, painted her cheeks with the holy symbols, and adorned her arms with beaten-bronze bangles. By the time they finished, the rest of the family had already left. They were all supposed to be waiting, when the bride arrived.
Ara and Esha headed up the dusty street alone. The rows of flat-roofed houses loomed over them, like immovable mud-brick sentinels. The smells of the market — goat and figs — drifted down the street. This was the way to Damgar’s.
She tried to steer Esha up the side-streets.
Esha resisted. “We’ll be late if we go around.”
Ara bit the inside of her lip. Esha was right, and she didn’t know how to explain. They continued.
Damgar stood outside his house. “Ara!”
He ran forward, caught her hands, and kissed each one. He smelled like sun and brick, inviting her to lean into him. When Damgar smiled, she couldn’t help but mirror his expression. Even if her innards writhed like a pit of snakes.
Esha looked smug. Perhaps she had a right to be — only Esha had learned of Ara and Damgar’s mutual affection.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Damgar asked.
She should have expected the question — Damgar always went out of his way to make her comfortable. She’d known him for years. Three time, they’d snuck away from their errands and shared a kiss under a date palm. “N-no. I don’t think that would be kind to Ukkin.”
Or to you.
“Well, I hate to say I’m looking forward to his disappointment, Ara-mara.”
She usually beamed when he used her pet-name. Today, it felt like a condemnation.
“You two are terribly cute together,” Esha giggled.
On the roof, something shattered. Damgar’s mother screeched. A child cried, tried to explain, but the sound of a switch cut the air.
“Stupid, stupid girl! How could you be so clumsy?”
Words Ara had heard all too often in her own home. She felt ill as the switch cracked again and the child sobbed apologies.
A moment later, the girl burst out the door. She was no older than eight.
“D-damgar!” she wailed, showing him the welts on the back of her hands.
Damgar ruffled her hair. “Oh, I’m sure Mother’s given me worse. Go put a cool rag on it; that’ll take the sting out.”
Ara’s gut clenched. Damgar thought this was normal. Insults and switchings. She’d thought the same, until her parents started betrothal negotiations and she’d met Ukkin’s family.
The girl rubbed her snotty nose on Damgar’s sleeve, quieted her sobs, and dashed back inside to find a cool rag.
Ara had dreamed of marrying Damgar for years. Thanked the Goddess for her gift. No one should marry against their heart.
The Goddess had been forced to marry another god instead of the goat herder she loved. What could be more unhappy than such a fate?
Except Ara didn’t want to live in this home. She didn’t want to see her own child with a welted hand, sobbing as Damgar’s mother yelled at her for being a stupid, stupid girl.
“Good-bye, Damgar,” Ara said.
He didn’t understand, just grinned in his infectious way. “I’ll see you soon, too.”
She stood next to Ukkin, before the Goddess’ Veil — a simple sheet of continuous water that miraculously never ran dry and never spilled over the floor. Ukkin’s palms sweated. He did not have an infectious smile. He did not smell of bricks and sunlight.
When the priest called, Ukkin walked through the veil into the temple, to his waiting family. His mother beamed. His father squeezed his shoulder. His eight-year-old twin nieces squealed in delight; an uncle gently reminded them to be reverent. One of his little nephews curled in an aunt’s lap, contentedly sucking his thumb while she stroked his hair.
They were hazy through the sheet of water, but Ara had gotten to know them well over the past few months. Calm words graced their home like a soothing perfume. No switches rested against their walls.
On the other side of the temple’s interior, her parents likewise smiled — tired, dark-eyed smiles from being up so early. They didn’t seem to notice Aunt Imim twisting her son’s ear and hissing at him to sit still. Grandmother sneered at a granddaughter’s dress, pushing her to the verge of tears.
Ara didn’t want to raise children in her parent’s house. Or Damgar’s.
Her face felt hot, despite the coolness of the flowing water. She glanced at Ukkin, his eyes as intelligent as a sheep’s. But what did that matter? He wasn’t a cruel man and he’d be gone most of her life, on caravan or selling things in the market. She’d only see him in the evenings.
No, most of her life would pass with his mother, aunts, sister-in-laws, nieces, and nephews. One of Ukkin’s uncles rocked a baby in his arms, quiet delight on his face.
Ara tried to step forward. The curtain left droplets on her cheeks, but her toes stopped as if she’d tried to walk through sandstone. She swallowed and pressed. No effect. Her heart thudded loudly in her ears.
Her family noticed first. A sneer from one relative, a mocking whisper from another. Esha smiled encouragingly — she’d expected this. She thought Ara wanted to escape this marriage.
Ukkin’s family noticed slower, but no scowls marred their faces. Their brows wrinkled in concern for her. They already thought of her as family, as someone to love.
Ara told herself she hated Damgar and shoved both hands against the veil. The flimsy-looking water held. Her fingers numbed.
The priest began to speak. “I am afraid there will be no ceremony today. Obviously the bride is not willing.
Ara swallowed hard. She didn’t look at Ukkin alone, but all of them. No one should marry against their heart. Goddess, that whole, beautiful family is my heart. Maybe I can’t lie to you. Maybe I can’t convince myself I hate Damgar. But I love these more.
“I will escort everyone out the side exit,” the priest said. “If you’ll rise.”
Ara’s foot slipped forward. She tumbled into the room. Esha gasped, pale.
Ara could only smile. The miraculous veil of the Goddess left her dry, her hair as neat as when Esha braided it.
“What a lovely bride,” someone from Ukkin’s family whispered.
“And such a sense of humor,” his grandmother chuckled, “to give us a fright like that.”
Kind words. She soaked them into her skin like honey and knelt with Ukkin before the priest.
About the Author
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.