“Stop screaming,” said Old Ma. “The baby is gone. Make another one when your milk dries up.”
Suddenly I hated Old Ma. I wanted to smash her. But I was clever even in that moment. I stopped my hand and sang my anger inside my head where nobody else heard it.
I was still kneeling by the stream, smelling the tracks in the sand, and nobody could see my eyes. They thought grief was shaking me.
“Stop now,” said Old Ma. “The baby is gone. Be busy with other things.”
It happened when the children were playing. They came back when the sun was falling and I asked them, “Where’s the baby?”
Nobody answered and I got angry and smacked the nearest one. They kicked the dirt but nobody answered.
Then I smacked all of them and shouted, “Where’s the baby?”
And they saw I wouldn’t stop asking. Then they told me. It was playing with the little stones near the edge of the water and we were playing with sticks and running and jumping and laughing, and a woman came through the water from the other side and took the baby and went back.
I ran down to the stream. There were tracks coming out of the water and going back, and I screamed and screamed, and everyone heard me and came running. But the baby was gone.
Later each one gave me a little piece from their own meat, to show they were sorry, and Old Ma said it was finished now, nothing more to say.
I kept my back to the fire and my head down, and pretended I was nibbling a little bit of meat and shaking with crying. But it was my anger song. Then I lay down and made my song quiet.
That night the moon showed its whole face, eating up the dark.
Everyone else was sleeping.
Near the fire a little pile of sinews was drying to make rope, and some skins scraped clean. I took them, and my knife, and two fire stones. And the meat everyone gave me. I was clever, I saved it to eat later.
I crept outside and rolled up everything in one skin and tied it on my back.
The biggest wolf pup followed me. “Hsst!” I said. “Go back!”
It whined and wouldn’t go back. And when I knelt down by the stream to smell those tracks again, it smelled them too.
The tracks made a story in my head. She can’t go fast, I thought; one foot looked different from the other. She is broken.
I went into the water and the wolf pup whined at me again. I picked him up and held him against my side and crossed the stream.
My heart shook me til I found the right tracks coming out of the water, downstream.
I made a song to my baby inside my head. Where are you? Don’t you feel me searching for you?
I saw the bushes were thick by the stream and heavy with berries. She’ll follow the stream, I thought.
I moved fast but quietly. I am clever when I hunt. The wolf pup followed me.
The night was full of sounds but my ears were hunting for one sound. When I heard it my heart shook harder.
I tried to make myself quiet. I was afraid everything in the night could hear my heart. It shook louder and louder. It made my legs shake. I felt broken and slow but I was moving fast.
I saw her and she saw me. The baby was crying but his voice was changed. He always makes a good strong sound. Now it was a weak stretched sound.
The woman had no milk smell. She whined like the wolf pup.
When I saw the baby my milk came out. A terrible sound came out of me and the wolf pup howled. The pictures in my head went black like a dead fire. My legs moved without my head telling them.
I felt like a bad sleep had ended. My baby made small soft happy sounds again.
After I gave milk to the baby I untied the skin bundle. I ate the biggest piece of meat and gave a little piece to the wolf pup.
The woman was sitting there, quiet. She had stopped whining.
I threw a piece of meat to her.
We went back through the water. I held my baby tight against me. I told the woman to hold the wolf pup tight against her.
I walked up to Old Ma when we got back. Everyone looked at us.
“Look,” I said. “The baby is not gone.”
Old Ma dropped her eyes first.
“This woman will work and will eat when we eat,” I said. “Her foot is broken but her hands are clever.”
I looked at them.
“I am Old Ma now,” I said.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)