The woman stroked the worn beads with worn fingers and counted another lifetime away. She sat at the edge of the moon in a place as real as any and watched as the universe breathed in and out, creating and destroying.

This time it was a young girl, born at seventeen, who received the impassive benefits of the woman's beads. Creature of time and place, the girl opened her eyes to circumstance and rebelled.

Bourtai sighed, and pushed away a pile of ugly sheepskins. So this is love, she asked herself, aching inside and out, carrying in her someone's child and she wasn't exactly sure whose. It was a long time since she'd been sold to him—her husband—and like a fool she'd let herself come to love him. It was silly—their world was not suited to love and she knew it, but she'd loved him anyway. And now—she'd probably never see him again. Maybe the child inside her was his—maybe not. Did it matter really? She sighed again.

Somewhere above Heaven the woman hesitated in her counting and almost smiled. This one was learning. She would find power. Again the beads clicked, the stars moved.

It was something womanish that made Bourtai love the youngest one above all the others except perhaps Juchi. Him she protected and fought for, not because he was her firstborn but because the others doubted him. But Tuli was like her, quiet but not quite content to see the world with the eyes of the past. He or his sons would touch the secrets beyond the Blue Heaven, she was sure. And after she'd stopped believing in love, it was all she lived for—to see Tuli conquer, not the world as his father wished, but his nature.

In time Bourtai became an old woman. When her husband finally died on a hunt for the mythical Beast wiser men called fear, and fools called destiny, she realized that she really had loved him. And then she suffered, because for all the years she'd thought she didn't love him or anyone, she'd wasted time, time to say the words she never said to him.

Beyond Heaven the beads clicked faster—or so it seemed.

Because she was a chieftain's wife, she took and even demanded the luxuries of her rank. As years passed she made herself believe that riches were all she wanted. The others thought less of her—she knew it and it hurt—but she pretended that she didn't care. Tuli died—drunk—and the rest were no use. Nobody would have let Juchi lead, but anyway, he also was dead, and his son stalked the wild north country like a madman. It seemed to Bourtai that all her dreams would fall and that her life, which she couldn't help believing was more than just four sons and a world, wasn't worth anything, didn't really matter. But there was still a hope—Tuli's boy Arik was like Tuli, like her. She died as he prepared to take his father's place.

She never knew that it went instead to his brother and in the end nothing really mattered—not the killing that her husband had done, not the gaining of the land, not the new ruler's dreams, not her own small beliefs. Nothing mattered.

The woman sat on the edge of a moon, as real as the people who believed in her, and counted her beads as empires rose and fell. Sometimes she smiled when a being stumbled over the truth of things. But even smiling gets tiresome after a while and, really, it didn't matter. So mostly the woman just counted her beads and prayed the one prayer for the creatures below her trapped in time. "Let it be as it will be."

And it was.

And it is.

And it will be.

As if it mattered.

2/3/78 11:20 pm


A/N: I stumbled across this while I was cleaning out my papers and looking for notes on "Neistah," a totally different kind of story.

This is from back in the days when I was really really young, and fascinated with Genghis Khan. Bourtai was his wife. I remember thinking of how she must feel, and thinking about whatever happened to her family who were once so powerful. The woman with the beads is a true legend—I forget where I learned about it—it was over 30 years ago, after all!

Anyway, when I read it again, I said, "Oh, wow—I like this." So I'm sharing!