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Freedom's Stand

Pashtun Territory, Afghanistan

The girl was breathing hard as she climbed steep outdoor stairs, carrying the basin of dirty water in which she'd been scrubbing vegetables. Sliding the basin onto a flat rooftop, she scrambled after it. She was high enough here to see out over the compound's mud-brick perimeter wall. A narrow river gorge ran between two gently rising mountain ridges. The compound sat halfway up one flank, its crenellated exterior fortification curving out from the mountainside to enclose an area large enough for a buzkashi tournament, the Afghan free-for-all version of polo.

Above the girl on the highest parapet, a teenage sentry squatted, an ancient AK-47 across his thighs. Catching his eyes on her, the girl pulled her headscarf higher across her face. But she did not stoop immediately to complete her task, stepping forward instead to the edge of the roof.

Today's sun had already dropped behind the opposite mountain ridge, leaving behind a spectacular display of reds and oranges and purples above the sharp geometry of rock formations. Overhead, a rare saker falcon wheeled lazily against the first pale stars. Perched on a boulder across the river, a shepherd boy played a wooden toola flute, the rush of water over stones offering harmony to his plaintive tune. Behind him, a herd of mountain sheep scrambled over terraces where crops would grow when spring runoff overflowed a streambed winding through the valley floor.

The girl saw little beauty in the scene. The narrow vista of this isolated mountain valley, varied only by white of winter snow and green of summer growth, was no less a prison than the compound walls. Just as the bright red and pink of poppy blooms within the compound enclosure below meant only backbreaking hours of hand-irrigating and weeding. But today that would be finished. Before nightfall was complete, the compound gates that had slammed her inside --- how long had it been? five winters now? --- would swing wide. Perhaps her new home would be a town with markets and people and the freedom to emerge onto the streets. Perhaps there would be womenfolk her own age who would welcome her as a sister.

Perhaps there would be books. Oh, to study again!

Will there be love?

Her searching gaze had finally spotted what she'd been seeking. A single track scratched the baked earth of the valley floor, paralleling the riverbed. A dust devil moving along it was too large and fast to be the wind. A party of horsemen?

Then a vehicle separated itself from the whirlwind. A single-cab pickup, its bed crowded with human shapes, though still too distant to make out whether they were male or female.

One would certainly be male.

Her liberator.

Or new prison warden.

Her bridegroom.

"Worthless daughter of a camel! Will you take your rest while others labor?"

A blow rocked the girl back on her heels. As her uncle's senior wife hurried down the steps, the girl scrambled for the basin. Water was too precious to just be discarded, and she carefully carried the basin over to a row of potted tomato vines. But as she tilted it above the first pot, the girl abruptly dropped the scarf from her face to bend over the water's murky surface.

Would her chosen mate find her attractive like the tales of ancient Persian princes and lovely slave girls her mother had whispered to her at night? If her bridegroom found her to his liking, he would be kinder. Perhaps even buy her gifts. So she'd observed from the younger women, wives of her uncle's sons and his brothers and their sons, who with their children made this compound a small village in itself. Her uncle's own new bride too, a teenager not many winters older than herself, to whom he'd given gifts of clothing and jewelry that made his senior wife scream with rage when he was out of earshot.

Though her mirror was blurry, the girl could make out features thin and pale as moonlight. Food had been scarce this winter for such as she. Wisps of hair escaping her headscarf were only a shade darker than dried mud; long-lashed eyes somberly returning her gaze, the blue of a hot summer sky. At least the face in the water was unmarred by scar or cleft palate, her body under work-stained clothing whole and hardened to strenuous labor. This past winter she'd been touched by the monthly cycle of women.

Still, that wavering reflection was nothing like the smooth black tresses, golden oval features, and almond-shaped dark eyes of her wali's new wife, who was the embodiment of captive beauties in her mother's tales. What if her own bridegroom was dissatisfied? What if he beat her? She'd seen the bruises on less-favored household women. Heard their screams through thick walls of their sleeping quarters.

"Where is that girl? Can she do nothing as she is ordered?"

The girl hastily emptied the basin. But her footsteps slowed to reluctance as she started down the dirt stairs. She would miss this view more than the compound's human residents. Though they had not been cruel, neither had they been kind. The raised voices and blows if she did not work hard or fast enough. The constant reminder that her refuge here was only by the most tenuous of blood ties to her guardian or wali, master of this compound. Most of the time she was simply invisible behind handeddown tunic and enveloping scarf.

She'd been too young for a head covering when her mother first brought her to those tall, wooden gates. No more than eight winters, though birthdays or even birth years meant little here. Making this her thirteenth year of life, if she'd calculated right. To the girl's dismay, it was her mother who'd quickly insisted she cover herself. She'd not understood then the fear in her mother's face when male eyes followed her young, lithe form around the courtyard. The fury of household women directed at her and not the watchers. She just knew she'd become suddenly invisible, the quick tugging of her scarf over her face when any male compound member approached now so automatic she no longer consciously registered the gesture.

Her mother had slipped away in the second winter of their refuge here. Of grief, the girl believed, though compound chatter said some sickness of the lungs. By then she'd come to feel that the individual living and breathing beneath her veil was forgotten, her existence no more than an extra pair of hands and feet and grudging portion of food.

That she wasn't completely forgotten, she'd learned only this morning when she'd been informed her marriage was arranged. If sudden, she'd known this day must come. Not only because her labor from sunrise to nightfall didn't compensate for another mouth to feed. Even her ignorance knew the value a nubile and healthy female represented. Her own initial terror and dismay had given way to rising anticipation. Whatever future awaited beyond those tall gates had to be an improvement. At the least, she would be wanted, her husband's valued possession, a member of his family.

Will there be love?

Excerpted from FREEDOM'S STAND © Copyright 2011 by Jeanette Windle. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Freedom's Stand
by by Jeanette Windle

  • Genres: Christian, Fiction
  • paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 1414314760
  • ISBN-13: 9781414314761