Here’s a sneak peek at a scene from my upcoming naturist survival novel, The Feral Girl, with artwork by JIBBO.
The Potamis branched across a skein of increasingly diminishing streams, tumbling white and foaming into countless shallow pools, the stones churning the water into froth. Here she stood, a foot at each boulder, the river below teeming with silvery bodies. With her makeshift spear—a whittled branch bound to her dagger—she hoisted the spawning gar up and onto the rock, where they twisted and leaped until leaping no more.
A ways off, she saw her mother standing in the river with Anja, the gentle flow trickling down from the rocks to pool about their shins. Her sister was tall and beautiful and could not help but admire herself in the water. She pirouetted from side-to-side, studying her sinuous shape at every angle, her long white thighs and broad hips, the locks of her hair laced into a single gold thread that swayed from her neck to the curve of her buttocks. Amina, crouched atop a boulder, watched her younger sibling’s performance with a mix of disapproval and amusement.
They were joined by Jarvn, the neighbor’s son from the Virtanen farmstead. An elaborate thread of bones circled his neck and a shock of chestnut hair masked the left side of his face. The boy had known fifteen seasons and was eager to jump the fire come the Solstice festival. Like most boys his age, he had his eyes set on Anja. He stood in the rushes with spear in hand, the wicker creel at his feet hopping with his catch, unable to hide his growing excitement as Anja continued her display.
Mana caught his eye and shot him an irritated glance, forcing him to shrink away before directing her attention to her child. “Anja! We’re here to catch fish, not boys.”
“But . . . I’ll have my husband do that for me. And my sons.”
Without argument, Bryseis thrust a sharpened length of wood into her daughter’s unwilling grasp. Her mother was not one for wasting time. She was a hard woman of few words and lesser patience.
The sunlight ducked behind a passing cloud, dulling the glassy surface of the Potamis, and Anja looked down past her reflection to the schools darting between her ankles. “I can’t do this!”
“You can and you will,” her mother insisted, leaning over her shoulder to guide her arm.
Jarvn, looking for a reason to be there, fetched Amina a fish from his creel. She picked one out, watched it dance against the rocks until it was motionless, and turned back to her younger sibling.
Anja pushed the tapered point through the roiling surface in a half-hearted attempt, her face contorting with disgust as a myriad of aquatic creatures slithered over her toes and across her calves. Amina cupped her mouth to hold back laughter, but Thelana, watching from across the bank, failed to keep it in. Anja looked as if to weep, yet her beauty showed through, her watering eyes a dazzling topaz blue in the midday sun.
“I don’t see why you brought me here. I don’t see why the boys can’t do this.”
Jarvn continued to gawk at her all the while, an awkward, absentminded smile spreading over his lips. “You can have some of my tarp, Anja. I’ve got plenty.”
Mana rounded on him like a tiger about to pounce. Thelana had never seen her so furious. “Hurry home, Jarvn! And comb that hair.”
Torn between his yearning and his fright, he gathered up his catch and receded back through the rushes. Her sister did not watch him go. Every boy in Ilmarinen was enamored with her, she knew, and admirers were easier to snare than fish.
“Amina,” her mother said, “what were you doing with that boy?”
“We were only talking.”
“What do you have to talk about with him? Did he try and touch you?”
Her eldest sister let out an exasperated sigh. “No, Mana, of course not . . .”
“Good. I don’t trust him. You wouldn’t want bogren children now, would you?”
Without the neighbor to impress, Anja relaxed into her more natural pose, letting her shoulders drop and her spine come forward, and her ample bosom surrender to its weight. Thelana doubted anyone could think less of her this way, but her sister was adamant that she maintain the illusion of Goddess-like perfection. At least for now, with Jarvn absent, she might focus on the lesson, while allowing herself to perspire, to sully herself in the muck of the river, to twist her pretty features in consternation.
“Listen . . .” her mother said, “high moon is nearly upon us and the cellars are only half-stocked. If you ever bothered to look at anything but yourself, you’d notice it’s getting worse every year. Someday, the crops won’t come in, and what will you do then? You must learn other ways to feed yourself, and if you intend to jump the fire, you must learn responsibility. Becoming a woman means bringing people into this world, people you will have to provide for. Love is secondary to survival.”
“By the Goddess, Mana, you make everything sound so miserable!”
“Life is miserable . . . for the unprepared.”
Thelana remembered her sister squirming and squealing as Mana endeavored to teach her the proper stance, the most advantageous way to angle her spear, the perfect moment to strike. Anja was repulsed by the whole ordeal, only going through the motions to satisfy her mother’s wishes. Whenever Bryseis held the shaft to demonstrate technique, the tarp appeared to willingly impale themselves on the wood, while Anja found fortune only once, and by accident, skewering a minnow no bigger than her hand. Success turned her grumbling into yelps of glee, but the moment was short-lived, expiring as her prize slipped from her grasping fingers the moment she attempted to retrieve it.
The day wore on and the sky turned to ruddy hues, and the tarp grew wise to her family’s incursion, dwindling in number until they were gone. Bryseis returned home with her three daughters and a few bony slivers for a family of fourteen.
The familiar ebb and flow of the Potamis brought the past into focus, conjuring images of Amina and her mother, beating the day’s bounty against the rocks, with Anja looking on in horror. Thelana was much younger at the time and unaccustomed to killing for food. Even now, there was a finality to watching fish die that never failed to unnerve her.
We struggle as they do, fighting just to keep on breathing, until the day we can’t. And then it’s over. And then our struggle ends.
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