Sheela pushed the wooden harvest-cart down the windblown dirt road toward Tarn; all the while, baby Willow stared impertinently up at her through red-mat bangs. The toddler sat nestled in blankets positioned around her like a nest, her round, green eyes, bird-like in the mid-morning sun.
Little Willow reminded Sheela of a bird, too. She was a frail little thing with twiggy legs and a thin stature. A strange sort of child she was, but Sheela had grown used to her, and even loved her in a way--not exactly in a maternal way, but as close to it as Sheela guessed she would get.
Sheela had dressed Willow that day in woolen knickers and a small button-down shirt, her red hair concealed under a boy's cap. Sheela thought the baby looked smart, but hardly like the boy she'd been conditioned to be.
In fact it had been sheer luck up until that point that their farce hadn't been found out. Sheela knew it was only because she kept strangers at a distance and her own family even further away, even going so far as to say the child was touched with leprosy and if anyone were to get close enough they'd be struck down with the dreaded disease as well.
She got the feeling though, that her father was close to solving the riddle of Willow's hidden identity…he was always sniffing about trying to dig up dirt of one kind or another…it was really only a matter of time.
The cart hitched itself on some rock or other below its wheel, jarring Sheela into a sudden halt. She bent to pluck the obstruction from under the rusted, metal wheel.
The cart had been given to her by a group of itinerant workers, who'd traveled by the cottage earlier that week. The workers had been in search of wheat to harvest or fruits to pick, but finding neither at the humble cottage had settled for a hot meal and a dipper of water from the well. They had left the cart to Sheela as a thank you for sorts. Sheela was grateful to have it, too even if the iron wheels squeaked somewhat and could've use a good oiling.
Sheela righted herself just as she heard the approaching clatter of women. She saw that there were three women. She knew these women--not well, but as acquaintances; they were all wives of local business men in the area. When Ihram had been running for mayor the year before, Sheela had known these women in better detail--but now only saw them occasionally in town, or at church.
Sheela also saw that the women were dressed in shopping attire, the smocks on the front of their dressing gowns, crowded to the brim with delicious looking fruits and vegetables from the market. She could smell the cheeses they had wedged in between the apples baking thoroughly in the dry, afternoon sun.
"Good afternoon, Marm," the first girl intoned cheerfully. Sheela couldn't recall her name so instead of greeting her by name, Sheela simply nodded her head.
"Oh, is this the baby? We heard you'd birthed one. How was it?"
Sheela sneered, wondering at the second woman's nerve for asking such a personal question. "It was tolerable." She wouldn't elaborate.
"I don't think I could ever do anything like that…" the first one intoned grandly, jutting her hip out to accent the curve of her body. Sheela looked away, embarrassed by such a show. She didn't hold back a sniff of disapproval at the woman either. Ihram was no longer a candidate for any offices so she owed these women nothing in the way of falsity.
"He'll fetch a good price," the third woman, who'd been silent until that point said as if to make up for her friends flip comment.
"I don't know, he is kind of scrawny. I thought boys were supposed to be bigger…are you sure he's in good health, Marm?"
Sheela forced herself to maintain her ground when she would have hauled off and hit the woman right in the face. "How dare she belittle the way I take care of the brat!" Sheela thought, but remained stoic.
"What did you say his name was?" the first woman continued, stretching her long finger out as if she might touch the baby's cheek.
"I didn't," Sheela said tartly, already too through with this interaction. But the first woman prattled on unaffected by Sheela's cold demeanor.
"You know what I heard?" The woman didn't wait for a response, either from Sheela or her own traveling buddies before continuing her speech. "I heard they're allowing babies to be kept, over in New Brighton."
There was a wave of chatter that proceeded that announcement as the girls latched onto the first woman's comment, all with comments of their own.
"I didn't hear that, Gert," the second woman said.
"Me either," the third woman chimed in.
But Sheela was no longer paying attention to their conversation, she had withdrawn into her own mind as she considered the notion of keeping her own child. It was almost Little Willow's time to be sold and Sheela had never let herself imagine that a heavier hand might intercede, changing the fate of her circumstance. What if what the first woman--Gert, Sheela recalled--was right? What if they were allowing babies over in New Brighten?-- which was a township not too far from Tarn. If that were the case would it be too long before Tarn adopted such a way of thinking?
Sheela bid the women good-day, then turning around---her plans in town forgotten--headed for home. She had a lot to think about.
In the years following, the political climate in Tarn began its change. The New Radicals, as they were now called had impregnated the Townships around Tarn and Blackfoot with their new age philosophies and moral standards. Children were no longer in short demand or short supply. In fact there was a boom in births and more parents were making the choice to keep their babies as opposed to setting them on the auction block for a few dollars here or a few dollars there when times were hard.
The mandated selling of boys was almost completely done away with, save for the odd black-market auctions that took place behind stuffy high-class parlors. Or the less rare private sales, which had yet to be banned completely.
Willow's father had lost the election the year of Willow's birth and each year since, sending their family--if it could be called that, deeply into the realm of the lower-class by the time Willow was in her third year. Money was in short supply in those days, which forced Willow's mother to go out looking for work.
When Willow wasn't being ignored by her Father she was being ignored by her mother who'd taken to drinking large quantities of ale and other hard liquors when she wasn‘t plucking feathers in New Brighton at the feather factory. The only person who really seemed to take any interest in the small child was her grandfather, who by that time was bedridden and half way out of his mind.
Grampy Ick, as Willow called him on good days, and plain old Icky, under her breath when he was in a particularly fowl mood had stumbled upon the closely guarded secret of Willow's birth a few years past and had been doing everything in his power to bring that information to light. He scared Willow most of the time--when he wasn't sleeping, telling her of the things that would happen to her if he ever got anyone to listen to him. He'd told her that they would take her to the river and throw her in. Willow was terrified of that happening so subsequently she chose to keep her distance both from the river and her grandfather, when she could help it.
Fortunately Grampy Ick was in such a sorrowful state of health no one seemed to take him too seriously, and dismissed all of his claims against little Willow as a side effect of the dementia they claimed he suffered.
Willow was only five years old when, seeing the imprudence of her family, decided to leave.
She bundled her belongings together, into a burlap sack, tied her worldly possessions, which consisted of two pairs of long pants, one ratted, white canvas shirt and a stuffed tiger named Tiger with a string. She slung the whole contraption across her back and set off toward the blue-orange sky that was lit in the distance. She knew there was something better out there, if only she could find a way to get to it.
The dusty landscape loomed ahead of Willow as hawks circled overhead casting eerie shadows in the spaces between her steps. It was growing dark and the night-time creatures were starting to make ghastly noises in the distance and she was beginning to feel hungry.
The only provisions Willow had brought with her were a loaf of bread scavenged from her parents pantry and a canning jar of rain water she'd collected the day before. And as she walked it became apparent that her well thought out plan hadn't been as thought out as she'd first surmised.
She was getting scared, more and more so the later it grew. Pinpoints of shiny yellow light dotted the foliage to her left and things howled in the distance to her right. She could feel her chin begin to quiver, but steadied herself against those girlish tendencies. She was a boy, after all, not some sniveling snippet of a thing--at least that's what she told herself, fore she new too well that she was indeed a sniveling snippet of a thing…only this didn't seem like a wise time for her to come to terms with that bit of inner revelation. So she steadied herself ever-the-more and proceeded onward right into the heart of the shiny, howling beasts. She would use her head to get out of this--she had a good one after all. At least it wasn't nearly as misshapen as Grampy Icks' was.