I’m not going to list all the ways that "War is fought on Women's Bodies." Current events are proof enough. In Afghanistan, right now, women and girls are facing immense danger and repression. The Taliban leaders are vaguely assuring the world that women’s right will be upheld “according to Islamic Law,” which is no comfort. They have already seen how important working women have been to the nation, though, so they may well still allow, say, nurses to be trained and allowed to work. A recent statement that women should stay home until the Taliban leaders have educated their masses of men in how to treat women does not sound at all hopeful.
Things there are in such chaos that there’s no telling which, if any, aid organizations can do any work inside Afghanistan, but those who have managed to get out will be in tremendous need of help. I’ll be donating this time, again, to the International Rescue Committee, https://www.rescue.org.
You know by now how Charity Sunday works, right? I’m the one who makes the contributions, according to how many of you comment on this blog, or even just read it. One dollar for each view, two dollars for each comment, between this Sunday and the one after next. (Actually, I’ve already made one contribution, because the needs are great right now.)
My story excerpt this time is pretty long, so in case you don’t have time to read it, I’ll tell you right now that you can find links to the other folks who are blogging for this Charity Sunday at:
Now for the excerpt, from the only novel I’ve ever written, Shadow Hand, in the Superheroine Collection from Ylva Press. (Fans of superheroes hated it, but some other readers loved it.) I’ll give you a part near the end that reviewers liked best. But being a novel rather than my usual short story, I’ll have to first supply some information for context.
This isn’t about Afghan women, but Kurdish and Yazidi women, and it’s set a few years ago. Close enough, right? ISIS troops raid villages to capture women to traffick for sex and labor, even advertising on social media. (This is true.) This fictional group is imprisoned in a refurbished ancient walled estate in the desert, surrounded by mine fields so that only those with a map of the mines can approach or depart.
Characters in this scene:
US Army Lieutenant Ashton (Ash, now gone AWOL.) While hiding from enemies in a dry riverbank cave, she acquires powers of telekinesis when the ancient figurine of the Goddess Ashtar falls on her and draws blood. The Goddess has her own agenda.
Ex-Sergeant Cleo Brown, Ash’s companion and lover, with an uncanny talent at detecting land mines or other explosives, even from some distance. Cleo and Ash have gradually developed the ability to communicate mentally in dire emergencies.
Colonel Razhan Khider of the Kurdish Peshmerga. Her sister Colonel Nisreem Khider is a captive in the walled city, refusing to let her freedom be bought while hundreds of women remain captive.
Major Margaret McAllister (Mac, retired, former US Army liaison with the women’s branch of the Kurdish Peshmerga army, lover of the captive Nisreen. Mac and Nisreen have also come to be able to communicate mentally.
Ilham, bluff biker and Peshmerga soldier.
In this scene Ash and Mac and Ilham are posted on a rocky outcrop barely within sight of the walled city, with a drone’s camera providing a close view. Cleo is inside the city with a group of Peshmerga women who have allowed themselves to be captured in order to rescue Nisreen and the mass of other captives. Cleo has just fought and defeated a challenge from within, though she has been wounded, which Ash doesn’t yet know. A great deal of action has occurred previously in the novel, and there is some after this excerpt, but here goes.
Shadow Hand, by Sacchi Green.
Ash looked up into the night sky, just light enough yet that the drone’s falcon façade was silhouetted against it. She lifted the programmed helmet carefully from its padding and rested it on her hip, then gazed out over the plain below. Turning slowly, eyes now adjusted to the low light, she oriented herself in the natural world.
To the west were the hills, and then the mountains that had become so familiar.
To the south and southeast was the vast expanse of desert she had come to know well in her years with the Army.
To the north—more mountains, she thought, but too far away to be sure of, and in any case it was the northeast that drew her gaze. To the northeast there was Cleo. And the walled city, outlined in the deepening night by lights along its walls at long intervals and a faint glow from within. Ash remembered thinking that the international Army base approached from uphill at night looked like a palace from some fantastic Arabian Nights tale, but this walled city could have been the real thing, no longer a palace now.
“Do they have electricity there?” she murmured low to Mac, though there was no one else who could hear her.
“Probably a gasoline generator for lights on the wall, and in the officials’ rooms at the center, but mostly oil lamps for the rest, if any lights at all.”
Ash kept watching the city, imagining it in ancient times. The inner glow could have been a celebration of a royal wedding, or a festival of magic, or even an elaborate ritual where all bowed down before the goddess and worshipped her with chant and sacrifice. Had Ishtar been there? Was Ash only imagining that the inner buzzing had morphed briefly into a purr?
It didn’t matter. Now, that glow could be the concentrated anguish of the hundreds enslaved there, in this war that, as so often in the past, was being fought on women’s bodies.
She shook her head to clear it. Would Cleo laugh at her for getting so fanciful? They had sometimes thought up far-fetched stories on long journeys together, but those had been on the raunchy side.
The real question was, would she ever hear Cleo laugh at her again?
She turned to Mac. “I need to use the helmet and visor now to get a look at the gates.”
Mac jerked out of her reverie at Ash’s voice. She had been deep in thought, too, perhaps wondering if she would ever hear Nisreen again.
“Here. Let me.” Mac fumbled with the clasps and helped buckle them under Ash’s chin. Ash could feel the faint trembling of Mac’s fingers and, on impulse, put an arm around her shoulder and gave a quick squeeze. Mac returned the gesture. The sisterhood of fear for loved ones.
The visor showed her a close, brighter-than-life view of the gate, once she managed to get the settings right. The ponderous wooden doors, the iron bands leading to…yes! The huge hinges were anchored to the stone pillars by iron spikes. Anchored to the pillars, but not to the lions’ heads. Looking closer—even closer—the lions were carved from a different type of stone entirely, like granite with a tawny tint. They were easily five feet high and nearly as wide, not part of the massive gray pillars themselves but bound to them by bands of metal like collars.
The buzzing now in her head became a throbbing, though not especially painful. Was it Ishtar’s approval? Her sorrow? Ridicule or illusion? It didn’t matter. The gate would come down, and if the lions were destroyed, what greater honor could there be for them than freeing the women?
She removed the helmet, sat down with it in her lap, and leaned against the food pack. Mac sat beside her. Still hours to go. The rising moon, nearly full, drifted in and out of bands of cloud—or, no, the clouds did the drifting. She watched the moon, the stars—so far away, so removed.
At first it seemed to Ash that the moon had leapt partway across the sky, but in the next instant she realized that a few hours had passed. She must have dozed off. Mac turned to her, the intense relief on her face clear in the moonlight.
“Nisreen can contact me!”
“Cleo?” Ash could feel her presence so strongly it almost felt like touching, but there was no response. After a minute or two of worry and waiting she snapped impatiently, “Sergeant Brown, report!”
That brought an equally sharp retort. “When I’m damned good and ready, Lieutenant!”
At Mac’s questioning look, Ash said, “Cleo can communicate, but she refuses to.” Frustration sharpened her voice. “What the hell is going on in there?” She made the helmet and visor rise to her and settled them in place again. “Did Nisreen say anything useful?”
“Useful to me,” Mac said. “Not to anyone else. She sounds weak, but alert.”
Ash crouched on the highest point of rock, watching the city like a falcon seeking prey. When she zoomed in on the gate, she could almost feel the rough stone of the lion’s head on the left. If she were to exert force… Yes, it would yield, when the time came. And the other lion? More resistant. Her hand tensed, tensed more, then drew back abruptly as the stone loosened with a jerk. She hoped no one had noticed the tremor.
Relief swept through her.
“Be ready sooner than planned. Complications. Enemy killed, not discovered, could be any minute. Stand by.”
Ash’s response was instantaneous. “Got you. Ready when you are.”
“Need a little more time here.” Cleo paused. “Got you, too. Always.”
Ash spoke to Mac without turning. “A problem. They need to get out soon, but they’re not ready yet.”
Waiting took more strength than action could. The rocky summit offered only limited space for pacing, but Ash strode back and forth over what little there was. Mac seemed preoccupied in connecting with Nisreen, apparently on matters more personal than news of what was happening.
She stopped in mid-stride.
“Gun in the tower to your left, my right. None in the other. Wait for my signal.”
“I’m on it.” Ash focused her visor on the guard towers and the wall between, and waited. And waited. What was going on?
When Cleo’s signal came—“Ash! Take down the towers, now! The left one with the gun first!”—Ash was so ready she moved her fingers a mere tenth of an inch and felt the wooden struts pull apart from the base by five feet. The figure inside the lookout structure stumbled, arms flailing, then clutched at a railing, mouth gaping in what must be a scream, while Ash sent the whole tower swaying like a palm tree in a wild hurricane. She felt the cracking of wood, the grating of stone, as she wrenched the entire lookout away, shook it until both man and rifle tumbled out, and smashed the whole stone tower to the ground. Then she sent the gun flying far into the night, and ripped the other tower away from the wall. The heat of battle, of power, surged through her.
“Now the central buildings. Blast ’em with everything you’ve got.”
They were in sync now, as much as they’d ever been. Even more. Ash felt the old high. She tore loose the great stone lion head on the right, raised it high, and watched it arcing over the city, followed by the one on the left. The drone must be following her eye motions without any adjustment on her part, because suddenly she could see inside the walls. Beneath the soaring lions’ heads, the masses of prisoners organized by the rescuers waited to pour out from their roofless enclosures. The few visible guards scattered in terror as the fierce stone heads sailed above them, parting the air with a roar like a double tornado, and slammed down on the headquarters—where there were flimsy, makeshift roofs until the heads came down onto them and smashed through in eruptions of jagged splinters. She raised the lions again, made them smash through time after time, then landed them intact on the rubble.
“Gates away! Now!” Cleo’s command came through firm and clear.
Ash seldom needed gestures any more, but now, standing precariously on a high point, she raised both arms. The rush of blood in her veins and hum of triumph in her head made her feel like the conductor of a Wagnerian orchestra directing a crescendo.
Crack! The right side of the gate tore away to the outside, bringing rocks from the pillar with it, and she swore she could hear the splintering and crashing from even so far away. She wrenched the remaining gate from its crumbling pillar, then made the shards of wood and iron and stone part like the Red Sea, leaving a wide, clear path. Two women came out, stepping from shadows into a beam of bright white light. Light?
A second drone had appeared, pouring light onto the roadway. It was joined by a third, zooming from side to side, and up and down, as though scanning the scene. Maybe even recording it. If the situation hadn’t been so grimly real, Ash would have felt like she was in a movie. What the hell was going on?
And where was Cleo? One of the first two out Ash recognized as Shifra, with a tall silver-maned woman leaning on her for support. Could that be Nisreen? Then Ariya and the medic followed, supporting someone between them. Cleo! With arms strung around her helpers’ necks for support, slowing them down. Behind them a stream of other women poured through the dust and rubble of the pulverized gateway.
“Cleo!” Anxiety burned the word into Ash’s brain.
Cleo’s thoughts rang clear in her head. “Lift me, Ash! I’m okay, just can’t walk. Leg out of commission. We can do this. I’ll point the way. Make me fly!”
The urge to snatch Cleo to safety was nearly overpowering. But Cleo would resist, and the mission would fail cataclysmically. Meanwhile the goddess brayed for more blood, for extermination of the enemy, with no room for mercy, or focus on the escaping women, or any rational thought. Ash pushed her back and seized control of her own mind. She had to listen to Cleo now, not the supernatural entity inside her head. She funneled her frustration into power, groped for Cleo, found her, and lifted her to stretch out parallel to the ground. Mac moved close to brace Ash’s back in her effort, and Ilham soon joined them and knelt on the stone to keep Ash’s legs stable.
Cleo was clutching something wrapped in her keffiyeh. As her body rose, the scarf unfurled to reveal what had been concealed in the lining—a long white banner bearing Ash’s symbol of a black hand. The Shadow Hand. The light from the drone shone full on it.
There was no time to wonder how Cleo had managed it. Ash carried her forward, twenty feet high, pausing, changing direction, the two of them one body, one mind, in two places. The drone’s light stayed on Cleo, while a river of women, two or three abreast, followed her. Some leaned against each other, some carried children on their backs. Razhan’s soldiers went up and down the line keeping everyone calm and moving as fast as possible.
Cleo looked only down and ahead, searching out each landmine. Ash wanted to scan the city, to look for guards who might mount the walls and shoot at Cleo, at the escaping women, but she couldn’t be distracted.
She kept her arms raised, in case it made a difference. They were already aching, in spite of Mac and Ilham’s support, and her shoulders shook with effort. Why had she practiced lifting heavy objects? Weight meant nothing now. It was time that threatened to drain her strength—time and distance—and there was still so very far to go.
Cleo must have sensed that. “Hold me, Ash…keep me flying…”
“I’ve got you. Always.” Nothing else mattered. Ash braced against the strain, calling up reserves of strength she’d never known she possessed.
Her concern about the guards diminished when Mac murmured in her ear, “Nisreen tells me that the few men watching from the walls are falling in prayer, none raising guns. When Cleo rose from the earth, with the Shadow Hand banner, they cried out that she must be a djinn, or an afreet, but the women all tell each other that she is an angel.”
The river of freed prisoners flowed on, following the beacon that was Cleo. Cleo kept on, pointing out each turn to be made, held up by Ash. And Ash was held up by Mac and Ilham.
“How far to go?” Rigid concentration roughened Ilham’s voice. Ash looked only at Cleo, not daring to glance away to see how long the river of women had become, whether it yet had an end, when it might reach the trucks and safety.
Mac freed one hand to raise her field glasses. Ilham increased her support.
“Our transports have turned on their headlights,” Mac said. “They make a stream of brightness. Only a quarter of the way still to go before Cleo reaches the safe zone.” She returned her full support to Ash and murmured, “Don’t forget to breathe,” close at her shoulder.
The turns Cleo directed came more closely together now as the minefield became more vicious. Ash watched with such intensity that her eyes burned. I can make it…we can make it… Deep in her mind, or spirit, or gut, she felt that some other source of power had joined what she already had. No time to think about that now. Keep on. Keep Cleo flying. Keep on...
So, have you kept on reading? Would you like to know what comes before, and what comes after? I kinda like this blurb: “A mysterious stone figure of the goddess Ishtar, long-buried in the desert, bestows on US Army Lieutenant Ashton the power to move objects by her mind alone. Ash must learn to control this impressive power, before it controls her. She turns to her tough, steadfast lover Cleo, with talents of her own, to help Ash in her struggle to stay firmly rooted in her humanity. The women seek causes worthy of their skills, refusing to allow the destructive side of Ash’s ability to be used by any outside forces—military or mythical. A hazardous rescue mission hurtles them back to the desert they’d left far behind, links their past and present, and just may be what Ishtar had in mind all along. A lesbian action adventure about sudden superpowers, lasting romance, and fighting for what matters.”