It's Christmastime
By: Susanne Thomas

Yara let the heat sink into her skin. She reminded herself that the summer was worse and complaining did nothing. The day had just begun, and Yara had chores to do before the full sun hit. It was dangerous to stay outside too long during the day. The stories and lessons said that at once, their people had been diurnal, and the day had been their friend. It seemed a foreign concept, but there were images in so many different books that it had to be true. Some were from the nearby ocean–side. Colorful umbrellas and people exposing their skin to the sun had been stark contrasts to the way life was now. Yara pulled at her thin cover, regretting the need because of the heat, but the skin was so sensitive to those solar rays, even in the morning.

Yara looked back at the wide cave–mouth. It formed a half–circle of hot rock that, by the afternoon would be too hot to walk on with bare feet. An overhang kept the sun off of the opening for most of the day. That overhang was decorated now, small lights powered by the deadly sun twinkled all night, signaling the coming of Christmastime. Throughout the cave's many tunnels and rooms, the same lights had been strung, making even the blackness of the deepest walls seem bright and happy.

She looked forward to getting back to the safety of the cave system that she and the clan had lived for centuries. The dank coolness of the rock city was a wonderful sanctuary from the angry eye of whatever God people were calling the sun today.

Yara had no belief in any of those God's. They always seemed to last for a season before a new one came to the fore to take over for the last. The new zealots were, without fail, the ones least listened to during the last wave. It did keep things fresh for the late morning dinner and revel before bedtime. And they rarely messed with anything but the superficial names of the rituals that kept the community together. Those revels and festivals kept the community together, and the actual leaders of the city kept strict observance paramount.

Yara shook herself out of her mind and moved on, waving at farmers finishing their night gardening and pulling up the covers for the gardens to protect them from the sun's face but still letting the heat and rays grow their crops. It was tiring and continual work, but fortunately, with diligence, full–year farming was possible. There was no season when things could not grow. They did rotate what they planted season to season. The farmers were harvesting gourds and citrus trees now, and the feasts of Christmastime day would be a welcome shift from the daily rations that kept the city functional.

Yara looked around and down the path that her people had built. She had medicinal herbs to collect from the Wild, and only a few would be difficult to find, but all would be past the carefully patrolled and maintained border of their land. The weeds of the path were vicious growers and snaked across and over the cleared path, mocking the efforts of those who went out weekly to keep a walking space cleared.

The reds and greens of the different plants clashed against each other and reminded Yara of the picture books of past Christmastimes. The cheerfulness of those pictures was nothing like the nausea–inducing tableau before her.

Yara felt at her side for the two knives she kept there, gripping the one in front of the other. Her steps slowed as she came to the border, and she took some intentional breaths to steady herself. Closing her eyes, she stepped over the border and into the woods of the Wild.

All of the trees were short and ragged shrub style ones, and most covered themselves in thorns and toxins. The beasts that still lived were, with very few exceptions, nocturnal and made their home in the ground or deep in the shade of the forest where the thorned trees grew too close for humans to make their way through them. So, Yara's only real threat was the virulent plant–life that had become keepers of the Wild.

Keeping her arms to herself, Yara traveled the path, eyes opened for the roots, grasses, and flowers she needed. She stepped over some roots and dug at others to add them to her bag. She snicked pieces here and there, careful not to take too much from any one plant. Some of them had wicked defenses when threatened. She filled her orders quickly.

Yara had gotten good at this particular job over the years.

She wiped sweat from her eyes, ignoring the sting. From her bag, she pulled a canteen and swallowed a few mouthfuls of water and popped a wad of seagrasses for salt and energy.

She'd found everything her list had included, but she'd made a promise, and so she went further though she had little time left.

Christmastime was coming in just a few days, and she needed a special gift for her sister. Petra was fragile and only able for creche work or record keeping. Petra loved the wildflowers of the forest though, and Yara tried to find safe ones for her every festival.

Christmastime was coming soon, and this was the last time Yara would be out for collection before it. But the safer flowers were deeper in the wilds, safe from their natural prey because of their neighbors. But she'd seen some old orchids growing weeks ago, and if they'd made it, they'd be ready for her to snatch one or two by now.

Just another quarter mile and Yara reached the area that she'd found the sprouting orchids last time she'd been down this path. There'd been many of the flowers then; now she saw only five of the blossoms. It'd have to be one flower only then. If she took two, there might be too few seeds for the next season.

She stood still on the path while she chose. There were choking weeds near the orchids, and one step too close or too slow would end with Yara unconscious and then dead. The weeds needed only to prick a person to move with an animal–like quickness to wrap–around legs and then torso to immobilize their victim in the heat of the day. The body would cook in the heat, ready to feed the forest.

Yara drank the rest of the water in her canteen as she considered. There were four massive flowers, gorgeous, full, and hued with bold colors. But the closest was smaller, a little shriveled, and pale orange. It reminded her of Petra's thin hair that spilled down her face and back.

The choice made, Yara snaked forward and cut the stalk, springing back to the path, shaking with the exertion in the heat of the day. She glanced down at her leg, aware of a slight stinging. A thorn from the choking weed had scratched her leg. Yara stopped herself from screaming, as that could alert other plants to her presence, and she ran. The vines of the plant were loud behind her as she raced ahead as quickly as her legs could move. One foot then the other moved forward and away. She was fast, which was why this was one of her jobs, and she outran the weed's reach, but could not make herself stop running.

She made it back to the cave village just in time, staggering with exhaustion and dehydration despite the now empty canteen. She clutched the orchid in her hand still and stopped in the shade of the cave's opening to store it safely so that Petra would not see it in case Yara to run into her before turning in the collected medicine supplies. Her legs and arms shook with shock and fatigue.

Petra's smile would be well worth the stress on Yara's body. And smiles were hard to come by on the best days.

Not that Yara or Petra could identify what the best day was. But it was almost Christmastime. And that, at least, was something to celebrate.


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