Desert Song: A Girl In Exile, A Trickster Horse, and the Women Rising Up

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Ari Ara chewed her lower lip, thinking. The Way Between could be used physically to interrupt fights and stop violence, but that was just the beginning. There were inner and outer practices. There were individual and collective ways to take action. With strikes and boycotts, protests and sit-ins, the Way Between organized people to neither fight nor flee from the conflict. It offered dozens of ways to remove support from a problem and build a solution, instead.

The Way Between required study and practice, but anyone could use it. Ari Ara had seen Shulen teaching people of all ages and experiences. The outer form provided insights into the inner form, and the other way around. Shulen taught people how to balance their usual tendencies. Some people rushed into fights. Others ran away from conflicts. Many froze, not knowing what to do. Everyone had their habits to work on. The Way Between challenged each person differently. Ari Ara could almost hear Shulen’s voice calling out lessons, telling Emir to temper his warrior’s impulses and stop attacking, ordering her cousin Korin to quit prancing and sidestepping like a noble, and stand firm. He challenged the noble girl Isa to do more than squeeze into a ball when she was confused or afraid. He taught the street urchin, Rill, how to keep others safe, not just herself.

Another memory surfaced, damp with trembling raindrops and dazzling with afternoon sunlight. In her mind, black-stoned mountain peaks rose overhead. Huge monsters of clouds devoured the sky. Spring had burst in the High Mountains, cool and moist. Her friend Minli walked beside her with his familiar step-swing rhythm as his crutch compensated for his missing leg. They were discussing how to remove support from a problem using the Way Between.

“It’s like pulling away my crutch,” he was saying.

“I couldn’t do that to a one-legged – ” she started to protest.

“Cripple?” he snapped, whirling so fast she nearly slammed into him. He glared at her. “If you go soft on me out of pity, I’ll knock you off your feet with this crutch!”

It wasn’t an idle threat; Minli often surprised her in practices. She was faster and stronger, but he was smarter. She stammered an apology. All at once, the fury cleared like a summer thunderstorm and Minli’s gentle eyes laughed at her.

“What I mean,” he explained, “is that the crutch is whatever holds up an injustice. You have to pull that away.”

As usual, he was running mental circles around her. She stared blankly at him. Minli rolled his eyes. He loved his movement-loving friend, but she could be dense as wood and literal as a stone.

“It’s a metaphor,” he groaned. “If I was an injustice like . . . like war . . . if I was war, then you’d have to pull out the crutch to get me to topple over.”

Metaphor had never been her strong suit. They had been studying epic war poems in Scholar Monk’s class and even though she could read, thanks to Minli, she still got confused when the verses described the heroes as roaring with a lion’s breath – that just sounded foul, not courageous. Hadn’t any of those poets ever smelled a carnivore up close?

“Look,” he clarified, “a war can’t happen if no one shows up. If the soldiers don’t go, or the nobles won’t pay for the soldiers to go, or the smiths won’t make weapons. Those are the crutches that hold up war.”

Ari Ara’s eyes snapped open to the present. The fire crackled and tossed sparks into the night. She could taste the desert’s dryness, so different from her old home. The women clapped time as they memorized a song in a call-and-response with Tala. Ari Ara drew a bunch of stick-figure warriors in the sand to represent warriors-rule. That was the problem. She drew a crutch. What was the crutch?

People listened to the warriors, she acknowledged grumpily. That’s what gave them power. The warriors gave orders. People obeyed them. She stared down at the sand drawing. Could it really be that simple?

“You have to stop obeying them,” she blurted out.

The song quieted. Heads turned toward her.

“If the warriors tell you to marry off your daughters, will you do it?” she asked them. “Will you just sing sweetly and hope they listen?”


“Of course not.”

“We can’t.”

The women answered with shaking heads and worried looks.

“Warriors-rule has no legitimacy,” Ari Ara pointed out. “Not in times of peace. The Tala-Rasa refuse to support it. The Harrak-Mettahl condemns it. People in the north have rejected it. So why do you continue to obey it? You shouldn’t support the warriors by doing what they say.”

“Well, sometimes they have good ideas,” one of the mothers said, trying to be fair. “Like replacing an old fence with a new one. Why wouldn’t we do that?”

Ari Ara shook her head.

“If it’s a good idea, you should hold a village sing, decide the same thing, and then go do it. But, if it’s a bad idea, then don’t do it. Don’t obey them.”

The circle of women burst into excited and nervous chatter. Mahteni watched them thoughtfully.

“Ari Ara is right,” she agreed, rising to her feet. “We could sing until the stars fell from the sky, but if we still obey warriors-rule, why should the warriors bother to unblock their ears?”

Scowls grew around the circle.

“Sarai’s idea about using songs to melt hearts and open minds is good,” Mahteni added, easing their resistance, “but if we back up the songs with action, that’s even stronger.”

“It is not enough to sing about what we want,” Sarai agreed. “We must do what we want, we must be the changes we need.”

“We can use the Way Between like the water workers did in Mariana,” Mahteni urged. “We can draw a line in the sand of our beautiful desert and refuse to take one more step in the direction the warriors are trying to lead us. None of us should support the journey down that dishonorable path, not by washing dishes or cooking meals, and not by obeying them. None of us should allow our children to walk in that direction, a direction in which their mothers and sisters are silenced. If the warriors try to cut our voices from the Harraken Song, none of us should lift a finger to help them!”

To read the rest of this chapter, get your copy of Desert Song here.