Another Flash Fiction Challenge out of Terrible Minds. 861 words.
I must find a way out of the Courtship. I have seen family and friends go off only to come back pregnant and then marry after their children are born and paternity proven. I do not know why it is that I have these feelings, only that I must do something to try and stop the inexorable weight of society's expectation.
My cousin Delphinia is the only woman I know to come back from the Courtship not bearing a child. I invite her over on an evening that finds my parents away for the evening. Along with the parents of other young women my age from the enclave, they are meeting the parents of young men from elsewhere, among whom they hope to meet the parents of my future husband.
We recline on cushions before my low table as the moon rises. She tells me of her sister's new husband, how happy they are with their baby girl. My hands tremble as I ply her first with honeyed wine. Later, when her lids are heavy and her lips are stained, I offer to light the hookah. She smiles and politely declines three times before accepting.
"Please, Delphi, tell me about Courtship." She sighs and turns her head away, blowing a stream of smoke scented with strawberries, tinged with burnt sugar.
"Sweet Nadi, you are too young to ask of such things."
"In two short weeks, I shall have to endure the Courtship myself. How can that be too young?"
I top off her wine when her head turns again.
"Endure?" She snorts a laugh. "Oh child, it is the Courtship. You will find a man and marry. Or you will not. What more is there to know?"
I lean over the cushions between us and whisper into her ear.
"If you do not tell me, then I will loosen my tongue about the special visits you and Winnie share. How will I ever imitate those sounds for your father? It will surely turn my face redder than your bottom will be before he finishes with you."
She jerks away from me, upsetting the table, spilling our wine. I mop up the mess. Delphi is staring at me, breathing in quick shudders. I know she has never seen her sweet, quiet Nadi like this.
"You have gone through Courtship seven times Delphi. You have not borne child and you have not married. Tell me your secret!"
Her smoke-reddened eyes spill over with tears.
"Secret? Nadi, I am barren. I shall never wed and my blood will be cut off from our history. How could you desire this?"
She begins to wail and sob, but the act is off, like when she pretends interest in men for the sake of her family's honor. I shake her shoulders and pinch her cheek.
"Delphi! Just tell me about it."
She sniffs, pulling a scarf from her sleeve to clean her face.
"You did not have to pinch so hard. Let me braid your hair and I will tell you."
I scoot around in front of her, and she begins to finger-comb my hair, tutting at every tangle and split end.
"Imagine a room filled with candlelight and young people, all nervous, shifting, sweating."
Her voice is soft and her hands remind me of my mother, before shouting became our main form of communication.
"The Elders know that many will have trouble with the ritual, so accommodations are made. No one will be left out. It is the way of Courtship."
The wine I drank along with her settles heavy in my limbs and my breathing slows as she begins the braid.
"Activities are eased along, first by gentle censers that spread a sort of drunkenness through the crowd. The heat removes clothing. If you stay by the vents, you can avoid breathing most of the Courtship smoke, for a time."
Her breath tickles in my ear as she pulls me against her by my hair.
"The rough sex arrives by adhesive smoke. No one escapes the rutting. No one can leave until every womb is plowed, whether they care to or not."
She nibbles on my ear lobe. I turn and push away from her, scooting away on my butt out of reach.
"Hey, stop that. I'm not like you."
Delphi looks at my feet, trying to hide flushed cheeks beneath her hair.
I look away and snatch a glass of wine from the low table. I drain it.
"I just don't want to have children."
"Is that so? Well, that is not for you to choose. You cannot change the cycles of life, little Nadiana. You cannot avoid the consequences of adulthood. Not by chewing the spine of the red cactus for three days following the Courtship certainly."
Placing the glass back on the table, I find the hookah still lit and draw a lungful of smoke. I hold it in until I see spots dancing before my eyes. I take my cousin's hair and raise her face to mine. Her eyes smile as I blow it into her mouth.
"Thank you for helping me to understand my unavoidable fate, dear Delphi."