They looked away, rubbing one foot over the other. She spoke quietly to them as she passed.
“Play somewhere else, will you?”
There was plenty of space and plenty of children—boys throwing things or wrestling, girls playing with dolls, skipping, or talking together. Palm let each group have a share in her smile as she passed. She set herself to climb.
The morning sun had removed the mushroom top from the vapour over the Hot Springs. There was little more than a faint mist over the highest point of the rise, where the boiling water seethed up. Lower down, in the string of pans where the water cooled to lukewarm and lost itself in the river there was no vapour at all. Still, once you climbed the littlest way from the place where the children played the air was fresher as if it had moved down from the mountain rather than in across the plain. She decided there and then that she would bathe just one pan higher than usual. She looked forward to the long soak for she felt the faintest creak inone shoulder and hoped that the hot water would take it out. She climbed, then, with dignity, and with a grace hardly modified at all by the creak. Her long grass skirt rustled, her naked toes gripped and relaxed on the worn rock. Still, she admitted to herself that her heart beat more heavily than it was used to. She stopped halfway up, flicked the water of a pan as if to see how hot it was—or as if to remove a dead leaf or insect. She straightened up, turned round and inspected what lay below her, pretending it was her custom to do so from here rather than later on, at the summit, by the boiling spring.
The women were working in the woods and in the Place of Women. She could not see them but she could hear their chatter and occasional high laughter. Where the woods thinned out and the water from the hot springs met the river, young girls were wading waist-deep and hauling a net. She could see how the diminishing area of water was stippled as if with raindrops and knew they had caught a shoal. Beyond that again, the Bee Women were working among the straw skeps. Much food, girls working and laughing, many children, two women suckling babies among the rocks, another heavily with child and even now, being helped by her sisters to a shelter, Hot Springs, warm air——
She spoke to herself as she did now, more and more often.
“There is too much food. Not meat perhaps, but fish, eggs, roots, honey, leaves and buds——”
She put both hands on her belly above the grass skirt. Her smile was rueful.
“And I eat too much of it.”
Well, she thought, I am getting older. That explains everything. I must not expect to be beautiful for ever.
She began to climb again among the pans, following the worn path through the white and green encrustations. The air warmed as she went upwards from pan to pan. The noise of the women and children diminished and at last was swallowed up in the seethe, plop, bubble of the boiling spring at the top. A girl stood there, on the little space of level rock by the spring. She was slim and her grass skirt was shortened to her knee. Her long, black hair was wound tightly on little sticks. She had a broad, uncomely face, but the grace of adolescence shone over it. She stood up straight when she saw who approached her. She laughed, and pointed sideways over the plain.
“It was there. In line with the cleft.”
“You’re sure, child? There are such things as grass fires, you know.”
“It was a camp fire—Palm.”
The girl hesitated at the name, still abashed at addressing her as one adult to another. But Palm had turned and was staring out over the plain. She pursed her lips.
“Then they’ll work along that side of the plain, near the hills—where the dry ravine is. You’ll see tonight’s camp fire there —I should think. Unless of course they’ve changed their minds, or been frightened, or started fighting or something.”
The girl giggled.
Palm smiled at her.
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