It was not yet light when Shmi Skywalker awoke, and the air still held a bite from the night?s chill. How a desert so hot in the daytime could grow so bitterly cold at night, Shmi didn?t know, but she?d long since learned not to question. Questions from a slave were too often answered with pain.
She prodded the old bag of bones snoring on the pallet next to hers. "Marda," she whispered. "Marda! Time to get up." A coughing grumble like cloth tearing answered. "If the vaporators aren?t seen to," Shmi hissed, "Gardulla will take it out of our hide!" For though the vaporators were nearly an hour?s walk from the slave barracks, maintenance was a daily chore, and not to be put off.
"That old slug has enough hide of its own already," the ancient woman rasped, but she sat up, knobbly fingers scratching her balding scalp. "Help an old lady rise, m?dear," she said to Shmi. "Pardon my creaking." She chuckled at the same joke she told Shmi every morning, and like every morning Shmi laughed with her friend and lifted her up.
At Marda?s wince, though, Shmi realized this would be no ordinary morning. The old woman?s gnarled bones knew when a sandstorm was coming, and by the looks of the sky outside the small window, it would be a bad one.
They would have to work quickly, if they didn?t want to get caught in it. People died in sandstorms all the time.
To spare Marda?s joints, Shmi carried both packs of tools as they made their way wordlessly to the vaporator field. Dust devils played about their feet, while the sky darkened.
Later, Shmi would plead to the slave foreman that the storm had come upon them unexpectedly - they were known to do that, sandstorms, and sometimes the signs just went unnoticed. But the two women didn?t even consider staying inside; far better to risk exposure doing their duty, than to risk Gardulla?s wrath for the sake of mere safety.
Even if the slaves were sick, blind, or bone tired, their hands would still know what to do. Shmi felt she had eyes in her fingertips. So when the stinging wind rose, the women simply covered their faces with their thin shawls and kept working. Shmi blocked out the howling fury, blocked out the scouring of her bare flesh. Her world narrowed to the task before her.
Marda?s sudden, strangled coughing, though barely audible over the shrieking gale, jolted Shmi out of her working trance. The desert was a blur, obscuring the sight of Marda?s collapse, but Shmi ripped her cloth away without thought for the raging sand. She straightened and turned toward her companion, the cramp in her back flaring in protest. She ignored it.
The body was sprawled on the ground, as graceless in death as it had been in life.
Sand flew in every direction, covering Shmi with a gritty mist. The burning air muffling Shmi?s cry of disbelief and paralyzed horror. Then her back spasmed again, as if it too rejected the sight.
Trembling, she pulled the veil over her face again, but not before she glimpsed - what? Was it a man? A whirlwind?--poised over Marda?s body. Not before the hollow eyes of the sandstorm swept over Shmi, and the mouth of the hungry wind spoke.
"Tell no one."
Hiding her face, Shmi cowered against the dubious shelter of the vaporator.
The storm calmed. The last few traces of heated sand slipped through her clothing to caress her cold skin. Dusty grains parched Shmi?s mouth, but she heedlessly swallowed them. The wind stroked her cheek, whispered over her lips, then she was alone.
Rocking back and forth, hugging herself, Shmi found herself chanting, "Tell no one... I?ll tell no one..."
But her friend?s death would be no excuse for unfinished work. Shmi completed the vaporator repairs with trembling hands, then gathered up Marda?s lifeless body for the long trek home.
Her report to Gardulla on Marda?s death was that it had been accidental. After all, people died in sandstorms all the time. By nightfall she even believed it herself.
People died in sandstorms. All the time.
Shmi noticed the fatigue first. Then the tenderness in her breasts and abdomen. When she became sick at the same time every day, she told herself it was just some passing illness; but when her cycle had suspended itself for two months, Shmi finally allowed that the impossible had happened.
She dutifully notified her owner and was rewarded with a lashing.
Her days were full of constant worry for how she would feed both herself and a baby: Gardulla the Hutt did not take kindly to unauthorized breeding, and Shmi knew it would be useless to beg support from her fellow slaves.
Her nights, though, were rife with dreams of a man who was somehow also a sandstorm - a man whom, she told herself every morning, she had never seen.
Tell no one.
Over the weeks, something in her heart grew to desire the sand; in the mornings, she would go barefoot, digging her toes into the cool, grainy earth until it blistered under the suns. Sand bathing became a sensual pleasure. She developed an intense craving for the coarse, sand-milled market bread she had once loathed. Instead of baking her own, finer bread, now Shmi began spending her meager savings for loaf after loaf of the gritty stuff.
During one of these evening trips to the market, her assigned labor completed, a stranger caught her eye. Sweat dripped from his face and neck, his tunics were torn, and his gait was stumbling. Shmi frowned, wondering how far he had come to be so weary. Then the heat overtook him, and he collapsed.
"Oh, my goodness!" Shmi exclaimed, her hand flying to her mouth.
A pair of Rodians that looked as though they would have gladly robbed the stricken man shrugged and turned away as Shmi hurried to the stranger?s side. She helped him rise, then half-carried him to the hovel that had been hers alone since Marda had died. He collapsed into a chair, and she poured him a cup of her own precious water, saved from the fury of another sandstorm the previous day.
"My thanks," he murmured when she pressed the cup into his hands. Shmi studied him as he drank. His shaven face was smooth, like sanded wood, and his windswept hair tumbled in blond locks just past his shoulders. Storm-gray eyes met her own, and Shmi looked away, blushing unaccountably, her heart racing.
The baby chose that instant to kick for the first time.
"How far along are you?" the man asked.
Shmi stared at him, wondering how he knew; she wasn?t yet showing underneath her layered homespun. Then, realizing how her hand was rubbing her stomach, she gave a small laugh. "Too far along," she said, "... and not far enough." She offered the man a short bow and introduced herself.
"You may call me Nanashi," he replied, favoring her with a smile in return.
"Where are you from, Nanashi?" Shmi asked. "How did you come to be in this place?"
"I am from everywhere, and I have always been here," he replied cryptically, then drew a sober breath. "Is there anything I can do for you, Shmi? Anything to repay your kindness?"
"No," she sighed. "Not unless you can ensure my baby?s health, free all the slaves, and bring peace to the galaxy."
Nanashi?s eyes glittered. "I?ll see what I can do." Then he took his leave from her.
Brushing a few grains of sand from the chair her guest had just occupied, Shmi sat down.
She stared at the empty cup long into the night.
Four months later, he reappeared.
It was late in the afternoon, and the slave barracks were rebuilding from a monstrous sandstorm the day before. Men, women, and children already drained from a full day?s labor were patching adobe, rifling through debris, and sweeping out the ubiquitous sand. Shmi paused in her own sweeping to watch as Nanashi ambled through the wreckage with a musing expression on his face. He was carrying a large satchel.
He smiled when he saw her, his eyes wandering over her distended belly. "I have something for you," he said by way of greeting.
"It?s very nice to see you, too," Shmi replied, but she was immediately embarrassed by her flippancy.
But Nanashi?s smile broadened into a grin, and, taking her broom, he pushed the satchel into her hands. "These will help feed you and the baby."
The bag had been stuffed full of mushrooms. Gasping in surprise and pleasure, Shmi stuttered out her thanks. "But - but where did you find these? They?re so rare!"
"They grow on the vaporators."
"Well, yes, but the wind scours them off as soon as they sprout!"
A tiny breeze ruffled Nanashi?s hair. He smiled at her again and replied, "But if you rise early enough, you may reach the vaporators before it wakes."
As evening fell, Shmi put her work aside to prepare a special dinner for herself and her friend. Nanashi?s quiet presence was good company for her as she maneuvered her belly through the tiny kitchen. Shmi thought the meal was the best she?d had in years. She was so tired of eating alone.
Afterwards, Nanashi reached across the table to lay one hand over hers.
Shmi found her throat closing in abrupt loneliness. "You?re leaving me again, aren?t you? I have no one, no one but..." Her hand slipped down to her rounded stomach.
A trace of a smile ghosted across Nanashi?s features. "I will come back to be with you, Shmi. I promise."
"When?" It wasn?t even a whisper.
"After the child is born."
Shmi stared down at her empty plate. The warm pressure on her hand disappeared. When she looked up again, Nanashi was gone. Sighing, she rose, put the dishes in the sanitizer, and began sweeping the sand from her floor again.
The next morning, she hiked out to the vaporators before the suns rose.
A howling sandstorm heralded the birth.
Shmi wished desperately for Marda?s roughened voice and gnarled hands, but the midwife was almost as ruthless as the labor itself. Gardulla had hired the woman only to make sure her property lived through the event - not to provide comfort or support.
The pain tore her body apart. The storm ripped open the sky, and new life arrived with a fragile wail.
Shmi shouldn?t have been able to hear the baby?s cry over the furious wind, but the gale quieted as if it too were listening. Even the chiseled features of the midwife softened as she cleaned the baby and pronounced it a boy. Then, her duty to Gardulla fulfilled, she left.
Throughout the night and into the morning, the storm kept a vigil over the sleeping mother and child.
Shmi awoke feeling that she hadn?t rested at all. Something was wrong - something was missing. She had fallen asleep while nursing on her side, and now her son - she had named him Anakin - was gone! She jolted upright, paying no heed to her aching body?s protests. Anakin?s name was a frightened whisper on her lips.
She almost cried when she saw Nanashi. Anakin was safe. It must have been Nanashi who had put the baby into his basket to sleep. He stood near the basket now, watching, poised over Anakin like...
Nanashi turned and smiled affectionately at her. "What is it, my dear?"
"Nothing," she said, laughing softly at herself. She rubbed the sand from her eyes. "It?s nothing. Only - you reminded me of something I thought I saw once. A man in a storm, leaning over the body of my friend." She shook her head, looking down at her hands. "But that was imposs-"
"You were to tell no one." The voice was alien and terrible.
Paling, Shmi gaped up at him.
"I could have had you also," Nanashi murmured. As he spoke, grains of sand dripped from his fingers, his hair, his lips. "But I chose to give life instead of taking it." A breeze slipped in through the window, and Nanashi?s windswept hair rose to whip about his face. Dust devils sprang to life at his feet.
The shadowed eyes of the sandstorm swept over her, and the mouth of the hungry wind spoke. "You were to tell no one... You will not see me again." The breeze became a gale, and the gale became a tempest, and for a moment, Shmi was blinded by the towering wind. She screamed Anakin?s name, then the storm was gone.
The walls had been scoured bare; the meager furnishings, broken. Anakin and his mother, though, lay unharmed. The child hadn?t even stirred, though a scattering of sand dusted his hair. Shmi looked tremulously about; then, still stiff and bloody from the birth, she walked from room to room with her sleeping son in her arms. No one else was there. The hovel was empty.
Shmi set Anakin back in his basket, took her broom in her hands, and began sweeping the sand from the floor.
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