One: The Exchange

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                                           The Exchange

Tribute time comes all too quickly in the valley, with every person scrambling to find something suitable to give in return for their well being. "Make yourself useful," my mother snaps at me, her usually smiling face creased with worry.

We're running late this year. The lack of rain has sent our harvest back a month, a month we can ill afford. Mother is afraid They'll take one of us as punishment. That They'll strip her family of one more person to make up for our small harvest. Last year, They took Kairim, the neighbors' son, because some of their fruit had been rotten. They haven't been the same since. Mother stopped insisting we go see them, we can't afford to share our food with a couple who have lost their will to live. We only hope They will be merciful when they see our own small crop.

Mother sweeps a stray curl behind her ear, her hands coated in a snowy dusting of flour. My own hands are sticky with dough as they knead the stubborn mix into well shaped balls. Beside me, my older brother, Ackon, hoists large flats of them into the oven for baking. Mother hopes these added treats will be enough to appease Them.

Ackon seems to think differently. All morning, his mouth has been set in a grim line. His usually chipper mood vanishing the moment They announced the Tribute would come early this year. No one in our village questions the change in season, at least, not out loud. There are those who believe They have wires everywhere, bugs that can hear even the slightest slander. Ackon's back is set in a straight line, his muscles tensed as if for a fight.

Mother ignores him, she's too frightened to scold him, too scared he'll do or say something to make Them want to take him away. Kate walks into the kitchen, her apron filled with wild strawberries. "Look, Mommy! Look what Luke and I found!" She brings them forward and my mother pauses for a moment to admire them.

"They're lovely, darling. Why don't you and Luke go wash them? We'll slice them up and have them for a treat after the Tribute." Ackon flashes me a look to which I merely nod. Mother will offer the strawberries as part of our Tribute, there is no doubt. But Kate beams at her and takes three year old Luke's hand and leads him to the sink where they obediently begin washing the fruit.

Ackon shoves the trey of unbaked bread into the oven a little more forcefully. "Ackon," my mother starts, but the blare of a trumpet stops her. They are here. All our eyes go round, horror striking each of our hearts at the same moment, even Luke pauses, his chubby cheeks going ashen. They are early, impossibly, terrifyingly early.

Mother lets out a faint "oh" of surprise and raises her flour covered hands to her hair, powdering it white. "Ackon," she says, this time with only fear tingeing her words. Ackon moves before she can finish her sentence. He gathers up Kate and Luke, helping them load the washed and unwashed strawberries into a worn out pail. I wipe the remaining dough from my hands with my apron.

Mother goes into the back room, her steps slightly gimped. My eyes follow her, not knowing if I should offer her any help. Ackon carefully shakes his head, there is too much to do to help Mother. I untie my apron and follow him outside, my fingers squeezing into Kate's when she takes my hand.

Luckily, all the wheat from our harvest is already loaded onto our cart; heaped there last night in the last rays of filtered sun. Ackon sets Luke onto the seat, trusting me to watch him while he fetches our horse, Sandy, from the stable. Kate lets go of my hand and begins picking up stray stalks from where they've fallen to the ground, her little girls voice repeating Mother's favorite mantra. "Every little bit helps." She folds them into her dress, carrying them like she did the strawberries.

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