She liked to take the long way down to the freshet.

A family of children dwelled near Aia’s cottage, in a mouldering house built into the side of the hill. She rarely had a proper excuse to go near them, but when Wendel seemed especially deep in his nap, she liked to take the long way down to the freshet to fetch her water and the still-​longer way home. This circular path took her near enough to the house that she could leave her bucket behind a log and limp close to peek at the dooryard through the trees. On her luckiest days some of the children would be playing outside.

The yard was deserted today.

The door was open, but the yard was deserted today. Aia was disappointed. She had already heard the two middle children, Parita and Tidi, playing farther back in the woods, but she had hoped the mild weather would have drawn the oldest girl, Gisa, outside.

More than anything Aia wanted to see that baby again. She had only seen it once, when Gisa had come to the doorway with the baby on her hip, but she had divined its name from the universal way in which harried caregivers addressed toddlers: “Sigi, come here,” “Sigi, put that down,” “Sigi, no!” Or so Aia guessed.

Or so Aia guessed.

Aia waited a while, listening to the cozy splash and clatter of crockery dishes being washed in the house, but Gisa showed no sign of coming out. Aia decided she had better get home in case Wendel woke.

She had just turned and begun stumping down the slope to fetch her bucket when she heard a deep, male voice grumbling in the house.

A man.

Aia had never before seen signs of a man in the children’s house. Gisa was only a child herself, but she never played with the other children, and she was always busy and cross, so Aia considered her the girl-​mother of the family. She had assumed that such things could be among the men. She quite fancied the idea of a family of children without any adults. She did not like this intrusion.

She did not like this intrusion.

Aia left her bucket and tramped softly back to the edge of the yard. The man spoke again, and Gisa answered in a thin, high voice. The splashing in her dishwater grew splashier.

Aia heard a chair scrape across the floor, a bustle, and then a crack as a piece of crockery fell onto another.

Gisa spoke one of the words Aia knew: “No!” And she was not speaking to the baby this time.

Aia forgot Llen’s orders and started up into the yard—thump drag, thump drag.

Aia forgot Llen's orders and started up into the yard.

She did not understand the man’s words, but she heard his crabby impatience mellow into a predatory indulgence as Gisa struggled with him. First with angry words, then with panicked words, and then shoves and smacks. “Not here!” she was saying. Aia knew “Not” and Aia knew “Here.” The man chuckled.

Aia stumped up to the door and swung her dragging leg over the sill.

Aia stumped up to the door and swung her dragging leg over the sill. She was close now—she heard a scuffle of limbs and cloth and then—Oh!—a terrifying stillness—and there were stairs to climb!

The man crooned and Gisa let out a sob and caught the tail end of it between her teeth. Aia thumped and dragged her crooked body up the steps. She caught a glimpse of the dear baby napping in an alcoved bed before she swung herself around the corner and into the little room.

The man had hold of Gisa's shoulder.

The man had hold of Gisa’s shoulder and was bending her over the table on which her sudsy washbasin still stood. The child was so tense she was quivering. With his other hand the man pulled up her skirt. Aia saw a flash of white—the back of the girl’s calf—and then she snarled, “No!”—one of the English words she knew.


The two spun apart. Gisa crashed back against the table, splashing water up the wall, and the man turned to Aia with a yelp of surprise.

Aia charged at him, flinging together an English sentence as she staggered: “Gisa—is—baby girl!”

The man attempted to dodge around her as she flew at him, but Aia flung up her higher arm and caught him by the easiest spot to grip: his throat.

Aia flung up her higher arm and caught him by the easiest spot to grip.

Aia dragged him nose-​to-​nose and stared into his reddening face. She recognized this man. This man had a farm on the other side of the freshet—a big house, many goats and cows.

This man had come to her cottage in the early days, and she had reviled him even then. He had wanted her to put his stinking man-​parts into her mouth. If she would not do that for Llen—who was at least fond of her—who at least bathed—she would rather choke to death on her own vomit than do that for him. And now she knew that this was the least of his depravities.

His hands clawed at her wrist. He staggered and sank, and Aia still held him by the throat. His gaping mouth groped for air, giving him all the charm of a bloated fish. Aia had him by the gills.

Aia had him by the gills.

She did not know many English words. Nearly everything she knew had to do with food or sex. But that was enough for her to tell him what she thought of him and all his kind.

“I want—maggots—should suck your cock!”

His eyes bulged. His face was such a dark purple that his gray beard glowed white. Then Aia felt a pop beneath her palm as something in his throat gave way, and his clawing hands clenched a last time and fell limp.

All the strength left his body and he thumped to the floor. Aia lost her balance and flopped on top of him. With her next breath she sensed that all the urine had left his body, too.

Aia lost her balance and flopped won on top of him.

Llen was right. Men were fragile. She would never have to endure their lewdness again.

Aia released his throat at last. Her arms were still flooded with a strength she no longer needed, and her hands shook with its surge. Now that the struggle was over, her breath was coming faster and faster. She thought she might vomit after all.

She swung her leg over the man’s body, and flopped back onto her good hip. Then she looked up and saw Gisa.

Then she looked up and saw Gisa.

Aia had imagined that she would flee at the first opportunity, but the poor child was still cowering in the corner, her skirt wet from its lashing of dishwater. She had just seen a man killed—one of her race—and Aia knew to the core of her warped bones how that marked a child. No matter how much Gisa might have feared or hated or suffered at the hands of the man, Aia wished she had been spared this.

Aia trembled and panted and searched her mind for words to reassure the girl. She wanted to tell her that she would be safe now, that Aia was nigh, and that no men would trouble her and her dear little family of children again. But Aia had few words of English—mostly food and sex, and nothing about caring and love.

So she said the most harmless thing she knew: the very thing she had been dying to say to the children for the last three moons.

“Good day. My name is Aia.”

'My name is Aia.'

She spoke her most careful English. She used her gentlest, most loving voice. But somehow Gisa did not understand.

The girl yanked the sleeping baby from the alcove as she fled, and she flew down the stairs and out through the open door, screaming, “Tidi! Parita!” in a voice that was loud enough to carry deep into the woods.

She yanked the baby from the alcove as she passed.