Letters and Lies
Letters and Lies
“I wonder what the world would have been if we had never touched it?” Jane said, as she helped the old woman pick fruit in a far off field that afternoon. She looked down as the earth stretched and rolled into the valley below, the autumn trees like fireworks of orange and red.
“Better,” she replied simply. A small throng of birds followed her from tree to tree.
Tim’s health had improved, he was looking less ghostly. Jane could tell he was starting to get itchy feet. Now he had rested, it wouldn’t be long until he suggested getting back out there. And if he did that, The Crookeds would take him. She had to find a way to keep him in the house, keep him in her company. It appeared that as long as he was under her protection, they were reluctant to act. But keeping him from leaving was probably going to prove to be her most impossible task yet. And then, as if reading her thoughts, the old woman said, “I’ve been putting off telling you this. He’s going to run soon. Within the next few days, I would say. It will be dark when he tries to leave and he will not try to take you with him.”
“I knew it wouldn’t be long,” Jane replied.
The women continued their business in silence.
After three nights of sitting vigil in the kitchen, Jane caught him as he tried to make his escape at around two in the morning.
“Evening, Tim,” Jane had said, from where she was sat in her mother’s rocking chair, finishing up a scarf she had been knitting for seven months.
“Why am I not surprised?” he growled, heading for the door regardless.
“You can’t leave,” she said.
“I can and I’m going to,” he said. “I will not leave the rest of the family locked up while you and I have a little holiday here at home. I have to find her, Jane. I have to.”
“If you go, they will catch you. They’ll take you back as a captive. You won’t have chance to get there as a hero.”
“I managed to get here without them taking me back, didn’t I?” he snapped.
“I spoke to them,” Jane replied.
“What?” he asked, reluctantly putting his bag down at his feet.
“They came here and tried to come to an arrangement with me. It was when you were on your way here, they told me that they wanted you back and that I was to bring you to them. They wanted to keep you altogether whilst they worked out what to do with me. So, they know you are here. You step out of that door and they will take you.”
“Jane, with all due respect, it isn’t me that they want,” he said, looking at her coldly. There was something about her brother that was deeply unsettling her. She could not put her finger on what it was but something in him had changed. He was harder, more brittle. Perhaps it was just a change in his priorities; he no longer cared if Jane survived. It was Sophia who needed saving now.
“I can’t let you go,” she said, standing and placing the scarf carefully on the table.
“So, come with me,” he said. “I didn’t want to take you. The family forbade me from taking you there but if you’re so insistent, then come with me.”
Going along with him would not save him either, Jane thought. She could not protect him out there on her own. They would just as easily snatch him from under her nose if they were on the run. But Tim would leave, no matter what she said. Whether she went with him or not. What she needed was time to think, to come up with a plan.
“Ok, I will come with you. But let’s go in the morning. We won’t cover any distance in the dark, let’s go as soon as it’s light,” she said, trying to keep calm.
Unwillingly, he nodded and said, “If it’s what you think best, I’ll wait for you.” He retraced his steps back upstairs, with a solemn grin playing on his lips and Jane began to furiously come up with a plan to keep her brother in the house and to keep him alive.
Whilst this course of events unfurled itself, the old woman was tucked up in her bed with the duvet pulled tightly up underneath her nose. Her eyes were wide and her ears pricked as she tried to overhear the debate between the siblings. What she had just seen was enough to put hairs on anybody’s chest. What she had just seen had turned the whole game upside down. Jane was not the only one who now needed to come up with a plan. Because if she had understood her vision correctly then Timothy was a very dangerous man indeed and even he was not to be trusted.
She listened as heavy footsteps creaked their way back to Tim’s bedroom and she listened as he dropped his backpack and lowered himself onto the bed. And then she waited until the two other souls in the house had fallen to sleep. Then after an hour or more, she rose from the bed and picked up the poker from the fire, the most dangerous object in the room and she crept across the corridor, begging the creaking house not to give her away.
A dim light glowed from around his door; he had fallen asleep with the lamp on. She shuddered upon entering, his room felt soulless. It felt as though nobody had lived in there for a long time. She could smell death on the bed sheets.
His breathing was slow and deep, his face the picture of serenity. All it needed was one sharp and wicked blow to a specific part of his head and he would be out for the count. She raised the poker, apologised profusely and it made contact with a dull thud. He did not wake or even raise a whimper. The blow left a deep gash that started to ooze with blood. She ripped part of his bed sheet off and bound it. He may be up to no good but her plan did not include murdering him.
The rather more difficult thing that now needed to be done was to hide him. She resigned herself to the fact that the only way to do it was by her own manual labour. But she was strong and he had nearly died of starvation so it was not all that difficult.
She let herself and Tim out through the back door of the house, so as not to disturb Jane who was sleeping in the kitchen. It was from Jane that she was hiding him after all. What she needed was a cellar. Somewhere with dense walls so that she would not hear him calling for help. And as she wound her way through the garden to the front of the house, it dawned on her there was only one place for it. A place that only a select few people would know about, of course she knew everything and so was on that list by default. A place that lay forgotten.
“If this plan works, it will be a miracle,” she said to herself.
“Good morning!” came the cheery call that woke her the next day. Jane had fallen asleep in the rocking chair, small streaks of pale sunlight were skimming the walls and the bird woman was stood at the sink, pottering around clumsily, making more noise than she needed to.
“I’m making breakfast for the team!” she smiled, uncharacteristically brightly. “I’ll just pop out and fetch some eggs. Bring your brother down will you? It’ll be ready in the wink of an eye!”
Then she disappeared out of the door without even once looking at Jane. How odd, she thought. It briefly occurred to Jane that maybe she had seen something, something she did not wish for Jane to know.
During the night she had come up with no kind of brilliant plan of keeping Tim in the house. There was always the option of pushing him down the stairs, rendering him unable to walk. That might do the trick. She was not beyond trying it at this stage. She would go and try to reason with him once more, she resolved. She would try to explain how hopeless it all was to him, how pointless trying to run from them would be. But knocking on his door, she was greeted with no answer. And in pushing his door open, she was greeted by an empty room. The bed was made, the backpack had gone, the fire was cold and there was a note sitting on his pillow.
Don’t follow me. I mean it, you must survive. I have gone to find Sophia. I am long gone now. It would be pointless. Just stay here. Don’t be stupid.
“Traitor,” she growled, throwing his pillow at the opposite wall before sprinting back down the stairs and crashing straight into the bird woman.
“I told you he would,” she replied, no shock crossing her face.
“But I caught him. Last night! I stopped him from going! He said he was going to wait for me!” Jane cried.
“People do strange things whilst they are trying to save the ones they love.”
“Where is he?” Jane begged.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen.”
“Don’t lie to me!” Jane cried, grasping the woman and shaking her, trying to shake the truth clear from her.
“Take hold of yourself! I am the only one who is left! Do you really think I would do anything other than try to help you?”
“They will kill him if I don’t find him!”
“And they will kill you as soon as they get the chance to!”
Jane broke free from the arms that held her and out into the garden that was yawning full of dewy morning.
“Tim!” she wailed into the silence. It was only her own voice bouncing off the trees that replied to her.
It was not a Friday but she decided she would ring the bells anyway. Just in case perhaps Tim was passing through a village nearby and decided to take pity on the sister who he felt nothing for anymore and ring the bells in return. Maybe just to let her know he was ok.
She rang ten chimes, as slowly as she could make herself. She waited and waited but the wires from the other villages did not quiver into action.
When she could no longer convince herself to sit there, she descended the tower to find the woman waiting for her. She looked exactly the way she had done the day Jane had met her. With an odd assortment of bags, a pick axe and a bird cage all gathered up around her. She held them about her person like armor. Today however, she was wearing a different look upon her face. Today she was timid and apologetic.
“I have to go,” the woman said.
“I must. I can’t explain. Don’t ask me to explain,” she said, starting to walk away.
“Please don’t leave me!” Jane cried, dashing around her and attempting to corner her back into the square.
“Jane, you can do this. I am of no help to you here. You must do this alone.”
“You can’t just walk away from me. Not now, what have I done? I’m sorry if I scared you earlier. Is this about Tim? What do you know? What is it? Please?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Tell me!” Jane screamed into the woman’s frightened face.
“I am afraid of you! I am afraid of what they will do to me because I am with you! I leave with my tail between my legs! Just like everybody else in this village did. People were convinced that they were safer living here because of you. But all along it was a death sentence and they never even knew it. I am leaving because I do not want to die at the hand of the Crookeds, just like my mother did. Just like my daughter did. And like her children did. Isaac’s mother and brothers and sisters. Is that enough for you?”
Jane cringed at her words, realizing this was exactly the way everybody else in the village had felt when they left. They felt like she had deceived them in some way. Like she had promised them safety and then ripped it away right when they had needed it most.
Jane nodded reluctantly and watched, with a sense of everything around her imploding as the woman trudged away slowly. Once she was a few hundred yards away, she turned back and called, “And they are coming. I have seen them. I do not know when. I just know that I will not be here when they arrive.”
The last thing she saw of her was a bird being released into the sky and dancing over the horizon towards infinity.
Jane supposed that the old woman had not intended her to find the letter straight away. She supposed she had hidden it underneath the pillow in his bedroom because she knew that Jane would go there eventually to find solace. Jane imagined that the old woman had wanted her to find the letter the next day or at least sometime later in that afternoon but she had certainly not meant for it to be found five minutes after taking her leave.
Jane had thrown herself heavily onto his bed and pulled his pillow into her stomach revealing the envelope underneath. An envelope with her name scrawled uncomfortably on its face.
“What on earth…” she whispered to herself before greedily ripping it open to reveal a long, clumsy letter within which read,
I apologise if this seems rushed. I haven’t much time. I feel I owe you an explanation for my sudden departure. I leave out of need, not out of want.
I am not all I seem. And I have not been totally honest with you. But don’t be offended, I have not been honest with most people. And in telling you my secrets, you are the only person, save one, who will bear witness to them.
I can see things that others can’t, this you already know. This power is a gift but it has also acted as a curse upon my life. My mother was also cursed with this blessing. I’ll tell you her story now, as it is relevant to mine.
When she was a young girl she ‘saw’ a group of Crookeds planning an attack. They were hiding just outside of her village. Quite alone, she ventured out to find them and stop whatever it was they were plotting. They had demanded to know how she had known they were there. She said, “I saw you. In my head.”
Once they realised what she could do they decided she might be very useful to them. They resolved to let her live as long as she promised to feed them information. Any vision of the future she saw, she was to retell to them. To save her own life, my mother agreed. They let her go and she returned to her family. Of course, her family had then fled the village, refusing to allow her to perform such a wicked act of betrayal against The Hopefuls. But of course, The Crookeds weren’t going to let that one go.
She was lucky, because she could see the future she always knew when The Crookeds would turn up and the family were able to keep moving around, two steps ahead of them at all times. One day, she had me. And we travelled around together. Until the time came when my mother fell ill and we were no longer able to run. That was when they caught up with us. They killed my mother, I watched as they did so and then they turned on me and offered me life in return for my visions. And as my mother had done before me, I agreed. This time they had learned from the mistakes they made with my mother and they offered me a place with them, a life with The Crookeds. Which I refused. I demanded my freedom and in turn I would send them word of anything I saw via my birds. They agreed reluctantly, but promised that should I fail to do as I had promised, they would kill me as they had killed my mother.
And so I did as I was instructed. Any time I saw anything, I sent them a bird containing the secret. I took great pleasure in sending them the most mundane of visions, picturing their faces contorted with rage when they heard all the bird had to say was ‘Katie, from three doors down is expecting a package today but I have seen that it won’t arrive until Tuesday.’
But on one occasion I did see something worthy which I reluctantly passed on. Something that I later discovered led to the murder of a large number of Hopefuls. I will never stop repenting that. Not for as long as I live. It was then that I decided that enough was enough and I would no longer feed them information. For a while, I lived peacefully. The Crookeds seemed to have forgotten all about me, I’d proved myself useful and they left me alone. During that time of rest was when I gave birth to my daughter.
But of course, it did not last. It wasn’t long until I left her father behind and I abandoned the village I had been calling home. I took the little bundle with me and we vanished under cover of darkness.
They were ruthless in their hunting of me. They refused to forget my betrayal. If they found me I knew they would kill me and my child. We didn’t spend longer than two days in a place until they tracked us down again. But of course, I was always two steps ahead.
Time passed and my daughter became old enough to refuse my company which was when she settled down with her husband and started birthing that enormous family of hers. But I continued to travel, they were still after me.
I assume you know the next part of the story; my daughter was killed by The Crookeds. They killed her to punish me. Of course, I ‘saw’ it happen before it had happened. I tried to get there in time to save her. I was an hour late. Again, I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for that.
You see, the real reason why Isaac’s family was followed everywhere they went, the reason why he lost so many of his brothers and sisters and indeed his mother, was my fault. They were murdered because I refused to join ranks with them. Each further murder was more punishment for me.
I travelled along with the family for a while, trying to keep them safe but I was getting older and slower. If anything I only slowed them down when they were trying to flee.
When we arrived here I felt happy leaving them behind because of you. Because you were here and you are quite a remarkable force of nature. And besides, I had already ‘seen’ that The Crookeds wouldn’t attack this village. They are terrified blind of you, I hope you know that.
I leave now, not only because I am a danger to you, but also because I can help you no longer. I am sitting here offering you nothing but company. This next bit you can only do alone.
Ah! There is one thing I have forgotten to explain. The birds. Anytime The Crookeds attack there is always a warning from the birds. You know this is true because you have heard it. Those birds are mine. Sometime after my information killed all those people, I decided to put the birds to another use. It is my way of apologizing for all the hurt I have done. Whenever I see an attack coming, I release a bird and that bird warns all the other birds in that area and together they raise the alarm. Trust the birds, keep your ears open. I have seen, the end is approaching. Do not trust your brother.
My grandson adored you from the moment he saw you. I just wanted you to know.
Jane had known all along that those birds were fishy.