Authors: Laurie King
Laurie R. King
“Mila’s Tale” occupies the center ground of my life: I write fiction; I was trained in Old Testament theology. The story is the first in a proposed series that will, if I am granted the years and the wit, become a collection of modern midrashes (for a definition and comments, see below.)
First comes the story itself, then the Scripture on which it is based, with the texts followed by definitions, my comments, a closer analysis of the text, and suggestions for further reading.
—Laurie R. King
The girl’s name was Mila. It is important to remember that, not because
the clouds in morning—
but because it was her name, and she was Mila.
Her father’s name was Jephtha.
Mila lived in a land of mud-brick houses roofed with scraps of corrugated metal, a remote piece of hillside where thin chickens scratched outside the doors and only the richer men owned pigs. In her village, five houses had water brought through pipes to the kitchen, four men owned trucks that, when running, belched clouds of black diesel smoke, three citizens had been away to school, two had been to university in the capital city, and one man claimed to have been to America and returned. No one, however, believed his stories; all thought he had got as far as the port, scraped a living on the docks for two years, and skulked home again. His house had been altered on his return, and given an indoor toilet, but the problems inherent in digging a septic tank in living stone had proved too great, and the white throne was used for storing root vegetables.
Mila had been one of the three who had gone away to school.
Perhaps if her mother had not died, none of this would have happened. Her mother was an educated woman; the marriage had been a scandal, when the schoolmaster’s younger daughter wed the bastard son of the local whore, a man who supplemented the income from his tiny farmstead with a touch of illicit smuggling across the border. But they were happy, and he did not beat his young wife as her mother had feared. He even showed a degree of pride in his wife’s pregnancy that the village men mocked and the women found unexpectedly endearing.
But Mila’s mother died giving her birth.
People agreed that Jephtha was not the same. Certainly he began to spend more and more time away from his home in the dusty hills, turning over the daily chores of farming to others as he built up a shady but lucrative business in smuggling—primarily guns. He married again, of course, but his new wife proved sickly, a poor stepmother for a lively young child with an inquisitive mind. She died, too, when Mila was four.
So he sent his daughter to her aunt, the mother’s childless younger sister, who lived in the capital city. There Mila lived, with a woman who loved her as her own, who educated her and encouraged her and made plans to send the girl to university—the country badly needed doctors, and the girl had the hands and eyes of a healer. Once a year, Mila travelled home to the village; once or twice a year, Jephtha came to see her. The girl preferred it when her father came to her, since at home she could not fail to be aware of the sorts of men he worked with, and the source of his increasing wealth and importance. The village was mildly surprised that he made no move to sell up and live in the city, but Mila thought he enjoyed rubbing his neighbors’ noses in his newfound wealth.
When Mila was twelve, a letter arrived from her father. She must return to the village now, to take up her responsibilities in the home and to prepare for marriage. Her aunt summoned a dozen protests, a score of them, and managed to spin Mila’s time out another two years. But then the war that had been slowly building up for many years began to break out, here and there. Worst of all was the city.
Five years ago, Jephtha came and took the girl away.
Now, Mila lived in the village. She was nineteen. Her father was the most powerful man in the district—perhaps the country—with half a thousand loyal men at his command. And yet, his only child remained disgracefully unmarried. Aloud, Jephtha blamed his sister-in-law, for overeducating the girl. She had picked up the manners of an aristocrat in the city, and had the habit of looking down her long nose at the fumbling approaches of the village boys. He had already entered into negotiations with three separate men over her, only to have her flatly refuse to have anything to do with any of them.
Privately, matters were less simple. The truth of it was, Jephtha was too soft-hearted when it came to his stubborn daughter, whose raised chin reminded him strongly of her mother. Still, he would have forced the issue, but for two things. One was the convenience of having his remarkably competent daughter at home to care for the house and farm. The other thing was the war.
When open hostilities broke out in the land, Jephtha was a known criminal whose bribes alone kept prosecution at bay. With war at hand, Jephtha’s large and highly organized criminal cartel was a tool too good to pass up. Proposals were made; counter-offers were discussed; and in no time at all, Jephtha was a soldier, his men issued uniforms.
Soldiers, even the generals, are rarely at home. With his daughter in charge of the household, there were few distractions, no urgent letters from home demanding to know what was to be done about a tenant’s roof repairs or bemoaning the loss of one of his milch cows. With her in charge, he could get on with the serious business of fighting. And everyone knew this war couldn’t go on forever; he’d find her a husband when he got home again.
The war ground on. Dutiful letters from home, one every week, reported that the crops were in, the new cow satisfactory, the roof repaired and a new farm manager taken on. He read these portions of her letters with some care, but could find no fault with her management, apart from the inevitable failings of womankind. The mentions of her work teaching reading to the village children, and worse, to the womenfolk, he read with a grimace—the Americans who ran the school paid her, and dollars were always handy, but he could foresee problems when she married and either wished to continue working, or grudgingly quit and forever blamed her husband for their lack of her income.
Still, while the war was on, he could see no real harm in it, and things would return
to normal when it was over. Later, a letter describing her study of medicine with the do-gooding Americans brought the same grimace to his face, but then again, nursing skills were good to have, and might counteract the effects of that aristocratic nose when the war ended and returned soldiers were shopping for wives. So he said nothing, and tossed the letters into the campfire, and went on with the business of war.
Slowly, under the pressure of outside nations, the fighting damped down, and Jephtha’s far-ranging regiment withdrew from the negotiated borderlands. Unfortunately, being closer to home meant the fighting became more personal. These were a man’s neighbors who were threatening him, not some bastards hundreds of miles from home. The war’s boundaries contracted, but the fighting became ever more vicious. Especially in the mountains.
It was the end of a hot, dry, bloody summer. The country had known war for so long, it was accustomed to terror. Bombs flew over fields where men and women worked as their grandparents had. Snipers lurked in the streets and alleys of the cities, while women with shopping bags darted across the pock-marked pavement toward the corners where the trucks bringing cabbages and flour dared approach. Newsmen in rumpled field dress spoke urgently into camera lenses, eager for an interview with the picturesque criminal-turned-soldier. And Jephtha, with long experience in getting people what they wanted, made sure they had their pictures: brave boys in stretchers; weeping mothers; rifles propped at the doors of churches where his men attended funerals for children, then taken up again as the men returned to the business of war.
Inexorably, the war bore in on itself.
In the beginning of September, word came to Mila that a woman in the next village over had been in labor with her first child for thirty hours. The intensifying warfare had driven the Americans away, tearful and swearing to return; the nearest doctor was now half a day away. The midwife was on the edge of despair, and sent to Mila: Was there anything the Americans had taught her that could help this woman?
Mila gazed at the face of the midwife’s messenger, and felt suddenly cold in the hot, dusty summer night. She was nineteen years old, could set an arm and suture a gash, she could give injections, use simple drugs, and had once successfully inserted a drip line into the back of a patient’s hand. She knew what to do in the case of an epidemic and had picked up a fair amount of herbal lore over the years since moving back home, but she was no doctor. The midwife, herself the mother of four, had been working these mountains for fifteen years; what could Mila possibly know that she did not?
The messenger replied, “She said you had helped with the operation to take a child.”
And that was what Mila knew that the midwife did not. She had—once, mind you, just once—assisted at a Caesarean operation, seen the way the American doctor had delicately slit the straining flesh of the pregnant woman and lifted the dark, limp infant from the womb into the air. It had, against all expectations, been a success, and the infant was now a round-cheeked two year-old troublemaker, the pride of his mother and father.
“She said, the woman will die anyway, that you might save the child.”
So might a butcher, Mila thought to herself. But without a word, she went to find the bag of equipment that the Americans had given her as they departed for safer lands. She opened it to make sure that the scalpels and suture kits and IV drip equipment were there, added a collection of the herbs that might help a laboring woman push or a surgical patient stop bleeding, and took up her robe to follow the messenger out into the night.
The moon was full, and the rumble and flash of what might have been a thunderstorm played over the next ridge of mountains. It was not thunder, although by now, artillery was itself a force of Nature. Mila followed the messenger through the fields and up the mountain track, which was steep and narrow but to the sure-footed, quicker than the road, and far safer. Mila knew her father was out there somewhere, maybe even where those lights flared and rumbled on the horizon, but she never thought about him much, other than when she sat down to write her weekly letters, and she did not think about him tonight.
Her father loved her, she knew that, and she supposed that she loved him: daughters did, after all.
Certainly his men loved their general, who gave them everything including himself. But she could not deny what her eyes and her mind told her, that her father represented everything that was wrong with this country, the bitter ignorance and pathetic male dignity that demanded one man kill another over six inches of fence line or the rights to a well. He was, she knew in her heart, a man who had taken the shameful conditions of his birth and gathered to himself the dregs. Had it not been for the war, he would be nothing more than the successful head of a criminal gang.
She, however, had learned other ways during her years in the city, learned that the only thing a person got by hitting another was an enemy who nurtured resentment and sharpened his knives. Males were sad creatures, children ruled by their muscle-building hormones; when the
village women and children came to her classes, they learned their letters, but they also learned a different way of looking at their world. One of the Americans, the young woman with the limp, had once laughingly called Mila
, a word Mila rolled around on her tongue with pleasure, and did her best to live up to.
Women were, she taught behind the closed doors of her father’s house, simply better than men. Oh, let men think they’re stronger, let them think war is important and that they control us and that they rule the minds of their sons, but when they leave—for the fields, for the Front, for a job in the city—who stays? Women do, filling the home in their absence, feeding the children, holding the world together.