Sticks, Stones and Monsters
by Nathan Elberg
“What’s wrong with Mom today?” Anahita lifted her paddle from the water, watching as a small snake swam past.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, she seemed kind of nervous this morning. Anxious for us to leave.”
The narrow channel was barely deep enough for their little boat. Tamsyn lifted her paddle, and looked back at her sister, frowning. “I noticed that, too. Do you think she’s pregnant? Sick?”
“She’d better not be pregnant. Maybe something happened yesterday, when she went to the dry-lander’s village. Maybe she caught some dry-lander sickness?”
Tamsyn scowled. “The dry-landers are always afraid to come to the marshes, because they say they’ll get malaria. They’re afraid of our tiny mosquitoes. Meanwhile, Mom goes to their village for a few hours and comes home sick.”
“Is she really? She didn’t seem nervous with our brothers. She kept her distance from us, not them.” Anahita stuck her paddle back in the water, turning the boat into another channel. The tall reeds gave way to shrubs, some with berries, others with thorns. The air around them was thick with mosquitoes. “Come on, we’re almost at the kissing field.”
Tamsyn stood up, and used her oar to push the skiff away from some protruding bushes. She looked back at her sister and grinned. “You look gorgeous. No boy will be able to resist you.”
Anahita laughed. “You are one conceited girl.”
“We’re gorgeous, we’re strong, and we’re conceited. The boys must be thrilled to have two of us to kiss.” Tamsyn laughed as she steered towards a small, rocky beach. “I’ll wait over here. Yell if he wants more than kisses.”
“How do you know I don’t want more than kisses?”
Tamsyn scowled. “You don’t.”
“I suppose not. Let’s see if he’s able to tell who he’s kissing.”
“All the boys are too dumb to tell us apart. They’d only recognize the difference if we beat them up.”
Anahita laughed. “You’re too rough for them.” She hopped out of the skiff, stepped across the channel to the next islet, and walked quietly around some bushes.
Balathu was waiting, fidgeting. Anahita came up from behind, slapping her hands over his eyes as she pressed herself against his back.
“Who am I?”
Balathu jumped. She turned him around.
“Come on, guess.” Anahita gave him her best smile. She wanted him to get it right. He was the best looking, strongest boy in this part of the marshes, and the right answer would earn him a kiss.
She shook her head with disappointment, swatting at a dragonfly that was getting too friendly.
“Tammy? I was sure it was your sister.” He stood up to leave.
Anahita grabbed his arm, and yanked him back. “Get down,” she hissed. “Don’t you want the prize you just earned?”
She put her hand behind his neck, and pulled his lips to hers. It was a few minutes before she released him.
Balathu grinned. “You’re a liar and a tease.”
Anahita put a hand on his arm. “I want you to appreciate the kiss more.”
“Why don’t you simply cast a spell on me?”
She frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I’ll show you.” Balathu pushed her gently to the ground, and put his lips back on hers. He slid his tongue between her lips, and placed a hand on her thigh.
Anahita pulled away. “I’m too young for those kinds of spells.”
“The dry-lander priest says you and Tammy—”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to hear about that liar.”
“You should. Lots of people are listening to him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Balathu put a hand back on her leg, which she promptly removed. “I’m not in the mood anymore.”
“I paid for it.”
Anahita flinched. “What?”
“I gave you all those reed mats, which you can sell in town. You owe me.”
Anahita slapped his face. “What do you think I am?” She ran off without an answer.
“I think you’re a witch,” he yelled after her, rubbing his tender cheek.
Tamsyn was waiting for her sister on the next islet. “So?”
“His kissing was fine. The rest was terrible.” Anahita related what Balathu said about them, about spells, about the priest.
“It’s only going to get worse, Ana. That priest keeps telling everyone that we’re evil simply because we’re identical twins. Eventually someone’s going to want to do something about it, about us.”
Anahita shook her head. “The boys still want to take us into the bushes.”
“Yes, but for what? Kissing or killing?”
“Let’s talk to Marit. He’ll tell us if they’re up to no good.”
Tamsyn put a small rock into the pocket of her sling, and aimed at a nearby tree. A bird screeched, and fled the approaching stone. “Just because he’s our cousin doesn’t mean we can trust him.”
Anahita made a sour face. “I want to go back to the bushes with Balathu. I like the touch of his lips.”
“Yes, but we can’t ignore what he’s said. We have to be prepared.”
Anahita raised her eyebrows. “How? Do we run away?”
“Where to? People will say the same thing about us in the other parts of the marshes. Do you want to go live with the dry-landers?”
Anahita shook her head.
“I’m not running, Ana. We have to be dangerous, so deadly that everyone will be too afraid to bother us.”
“But only if they try to hurt us.”
Tamsyn nodded. “Only if...”
* * *
“Who am I? You should be able to tell by now.” Anahita smiled, and gently touched Balathu’s cheek.
“Hmm. I don’t want to guess wrong, like last week.” He put his lips to hers, and lay her down on the long grass. “Your lips taste like—”
She put her hand behind his neck, and pulled his mouth back to hers.
He pulled back with a smile. “I know how to tell.” Balathu shoved his hand between her legs and groped.
Anahita screamed, and tried to stand. He sat himself on her stomach, pinning her hands to the ground. She struggled, she spat, but Balathu was older and much heavier. To her horror, his pants were already down around his knees.
She heard footsteps.
“Get off her now, and pull up your pants! You’re not doing that,” Marit said.
Anahita struggled to hold back her tears. Thank you, cousin. She would thank him out loud later, without her friends close by. That is, without all her attackers close by. She lifted her head cautiously off the grass to find five boys in a circle around her, including Marit. She should have been more careful.
“Who are you to tell me what to do? Are you trying to protect her?” Balathu stood.
“No, you idiot, I’m protecting you,” Marit said.
“From what? Losing my virginity?”
“From losing what little you have between your legs. Don’t you know?”
“Know what?” Balathu’s arms were crossed over his chest. His pants were still bunched around his feet.
“Even young witches have teeth down there. Try raping her, and she’ll bite it off and swallow it.”
“Where did you hear that? It’s crazy.”
“The priest told me, when I visited his temple.”
Anahita suppressed a grin. Her cousin was spinning quite a story. She closed her eyes and rolled onto her side, waiting for an opportunity to flee.
“She’s not a witch, she’s an identical twin.”
“That’s even worse,” Marit said.
“So then why did we trap her?”
Anahita turned her feet so that her toes were against the ground, ready to push off quickly.
“Dummy! For this.”
“Ouch!” A rock, the size of a fist, smashed into Anahita’s arm. She jumped to her feet looking for an escape as rocks started coming at her from five different directions. To her horror, Marit had a pile of large stones at his feet, and one in his hand. Balathu quickly stepped away from Marit’s target.
“Her head! Aim for— ahhh!” Balathu screamed as a small rock, thrown much harder than any of the others, came from outside the circle and smashed into his temple. He clutched at his bleeding head and fell to the ground.
Anahita ran a couple of strides forward and jumped, landing her heel on Balathu’s neck.
She ran towards the copse that the small, fast-moving stone had come from
“Over here, Ana.” Her sister Tamsyn was already sprinting away.
The islets were small in this area of the marshes. Some took seconds to run across; others, maybe a minute. The two girls splashed through some shallow water, moving to the next shore, moving towards higher ground. The trail split into two; the sisters ran straight ahead, towards where sodden soil gave way to dry land. Tamsyn glanced quickly back as she tossed her slingshot onto the path behind her.
“Slow down, Tammy.”
“Are you out of breath?”
Tamsyn glanced back again. “Oh, okay.” She eased her pace. They could hear the boys yelling curses, yelling threats, getting closer.
The smaller islets, deep in the marshes, were covered with tall reeds or shrubs; thick vegetation. The area the girls were running toward had meadows, open areas. They raced downhill through a long narrow field. As they approached the end of the glen, Anahita lost her footing, and stumbled to the ground. She rolled on to her back, grimacing as she clutched her knee.
Tamsyn stopped and screamed. “Ana!”
Anahita waved at her sister to keep running. “Don’t stop!” she yelled. “Go, go!”
Tamsyn took off again, racing straight ahead. Anahita awkwardly pulled herself up. The boys were getting too close. She hobbled off to the side until she was out of their line of sight, straightened up, and resumed running.
“You two come with me after Tammy. You, get Ana. Break her leg or something till we get back to finish her off.” They were close enough for Anahita to hear Marit’s instructions.
The path she took went through scattered shrubs, occasional trees. There was just one boy chasing her now. It was better than four, but this one was strong, and had good aim. A rock hit her hard on the back, between the shoulders. A little higher and it could have knocked her out, or worse. She kept running, splashing from islet to islet through the shallow marsh waters. She had a path to follow, a destination to reach.
“Witches aren’t allowed to live,” he yelled, as if she would care about the reason for the rocks. She did, actually.
The morning sun bathed the marshes with warmth; the marshes in turn bathed the air with moisture. Mosquitoes and dragonflies hovered and darted. Mice, rabbits, and lizards meandered across the small islands, each dedicated to its simple purpose. Some of the snakes slithering through the vegetation were deadly, others not. Very few of the people racing through the marshes were deadly, though some had lethal intent.
Anahita veered towards one of the larger islands in the marshes. It had a small, grassy meadow and scattered swamp birch trees. She ran past all of them as more rocks bounced off her back and legs. It was good she was wearing the deerskin jacket; the leather took away some of the sting. Her skin was coated with perspiration, but that was to be expected. She preferred sweat to stones.
The boy followed, too engrossed with his attack to wonder why she was taking such a circuitous route.
Tamsyn jumped. She landed perfectly on the boy’s shoulders as he ran under a tree, slamming him to the ground and knocking him unconscious. She quickly pulled a small leather pouch from her pocket, stuffed its opening into the boy’s mouth, and gave it a shake.
Anahita had doubled back, and now stood above her sister. She tossed her jacket onto the ground, cooling off as she took a drink from her water bladder and caught her breath. “Are we going to find dwarf rats for all of them?”
Tamsyn shook her head as she held the boy’s mouth closed. She wanted the rat to try to escape — down his esophagus.
“How long till it dies, Tammy?”
Tamsyn frowned. “The big rat or the small one?”
“Will it live long enough to...” Anahita coughed, as she struggled to keep herself from retching at what they were doing.
Tamsyn shrugged. They had never tried anything like this before. The boy stirred, and her fist slammed down into his head, quieting him.
Anahita extended her hand, and pulled her sister up. “The next ones will be harder.”
“We’ll do them. But then we’ll have to find new playmates to take into the bushes to kiss.” Tamsyn gave her sister a thin smile.
“Isn’t there another way to stop them from harassing us?”
“You call it harassing? In the last few days they’ve thrown rocks, cut a hole in our boat, put a fire snake in it... Should we let them kill us?”
“The snake may have climbed into our boat itself.” Anahita clasped her elbows, chilled by the thought of what they were going to do. “Must we...? Our friends, family?”
Using her foot, Tamsyn rolled the boy onto his side, and then kicked him hard in the groin. “Is there a choice, Ana? Me against my sister. My sister and I against my cousin. My cousin and I against my far cousin. The Low Marsh against the Far Marsh people. The Marsh people against the dry-landers. The Marsh people and dry-landers against the people in the hills. Our horizon against the far side of the horizon. Our world against the next. Our god against all gods.”
Anahita nodded at the mantra. “We should kill the priest.”
“He’s not a priest; he’s just a fat liar who wants power and money so he can spend his days eating. He’s got everyone believing that all identical twins are dangerous monsters, so they’ll pay him to protect them against us. People said nasty things before, but now it seems they want to kill us. Will they they leave us alone if he’s dead?”
“I don’t know... If we get caught, the dry-lander Chief will probably have us tortured.”
“I want to try, Ana. We have to try.”
The girls glanced back at the boy lying unconscious on the ground. The rat in his stomach was probably still alive, trying desperately to use its long claws, its sharp teeth, to dig a way out. It was unlikely to succeed, and no one would comprehend the reason for the boy’s painful demise.
“When we’re finished today, everyone will be convinced we have powers.”
Anahita started to jog. “Everyone’s already convinced. I think we should use them on our foes.”
Tamsyn nodded and followed her.
The three other boys were where the sisters expected them. Distracted from the chase after losing track of Tamsyn, and forgetting about their friend, they had stopped to build a small fire and snack on the wild berries that grew with abandon in this area. They were teasing a small green fire snake as they ate, laughing at its predicament. It was trying to escape past Marit, but he kept on dancing and whacking at it with a long stick.
Anahita had a slingshot and a very small stone. She stood up from behind a bush, and shot at her cousin’s midsection. She wanted to get his attention.
“Ow!” He turned to look where the stone had come from, and the snake took the opportunity to dart forward and bite his leg. Marit froze, paralysis racing through him. His friends watched in horror as he fell face-first into the fire.
Rather than escape, the snake immediately turned on its other tormentors. Both of the remaining boys fled in panic, in different directions. Both of the sisters silently took off after them.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Nathan Elberg