A Passage of Time
A Passage of Time
That first winter was perilous. They struggled and starved. Evelyn and Michael fought constantly over what they thought was best. Michael wanted to move on; he had it into his head that pastures would be greener elsewhere. Whereas Evelyn knew that to ship out into the frosty, unforgiving forest would be the death of them. He was knocked back into the boots he believed he had grown too big for and every day they vowed to never speak again. An hour later they would be thick as thieves once more.
Noah was also becoming a problem. On the day he turned fourteen he seemed to sprout invisible, violent plumage like a male peacock. He too, wanted a piece of the power. And he very desperately wanted to be noticed by Evelyn as something other than a meal ticket.
One day things changed for the worse. It snowed. The air grew so cold and their huts offered so little protection that Evelyn was sure they would all just freeze into position during the night and never wake again. She couldn’t make Noah go out and hunt or fish because the cold burned his fingers and made him sob with the pain. She tried herself several times but had neither the skill nor speed to be a killer.
So they sat still and started to starve to death. She read one of the books to the children to pass the time. It was about pirates and faraway lands where bright birds occupied the skies and it was warm enough for toes to creep into the balmy waters of the sea. But the story made them laugh which reduced them to fits of coughing. So she stopped.
She awoke one day to find their first dead. Pearl, who died age five and three quarters. In sleep she had rolled away from the rest of the children and the time she had not been receiving another human’s warmth had been long enough to kill her. As she lifted Pearl’s body and placed her carefully in the tiny grave that Michael and Noah had dug she thought sadly, that if her parents were watching her progress somewhere far away and dreamlike, they would not be so proud of her anymore.
She looked around at the children, grasped the closest hands in hers and said, “This will never happen again. I will not allow it.”
When people speak of Evelyn and her legend, they often leave that bit out. They don’t mention that she lost one of the smallest of her band in the first few months; perhaps it doesn’t paint her in the best light. Perhaps she becomes less of a martyr once people learn that part of her legend. She is not quite the hero everybody makes her out to be when they hear that bit. But in all truthfulness, that moment is the one that woke Evelyn up to the enormity of the importance of their lives. It is the moment she decided she was worthy of being the hero of the story.
Once the snow cleared and the forest started to come back to life again, Evelyn took the children out of the woods and to a hilltop that overlooked a valley. They sat and watched as the sun started to sink, flashing their faces with brilliant, hopeful sunlight. She looked to the children as they sat, waiting, absorbing the warmth. Twelve children in all but Pearl was present on the hilltop too. They could all feel her. And it was with that feeling that they decided to try again and see if this time, they couldn’t make a better go of being Hopeful.
Ten years passed by, many things changed. They felled a large circle of trees to make way for larger, more substantial huts. They also built a network of tree houses; they dug an underground shelter should they ever be discovered. And in all those years The Crookeds never showed hide nor hair of themselves.
Stomachs started to swell and with that so did their numbers. Before long there were fifteen people living in the trees. Margret and David were the first to produce a little boy, followed swiftly by Rosaline and Christian who birthed a little girl named Pearl.
After Margret’s baby had been born and Evelyn had washed the silent disgust from her hands and face (because of course she had been in charge), Meg had turned to Evelyn, babe in arms and said, “I think it should be your turn next.”
“Trust me, I’ve just watched you give birth. I’ve seen how it’s done and I’m in no rush to try it,” she smiled.
“Look at him,” Meg said, brandishing the pink creature. “Isn’t he worth every moment of it?”
It couldn’t be denied that Evelyn skipped a beat then, as the creature yawned and extended a tiny star fish palm to the air in greeting.
“No, I don’t think so. Anyway, just who could I convince to give one to me?” Evelyn chuckled.
“Noah,” Meg answered, looking square into her eyes. “You know he loves you. You’re just refusing to see it.”
“You forget that I have already raised twelve children. I’ve had more than enough for a lifetime,” Evelyn laughed it off and went to fetch David to see his new son.
The baby stayed up crying all night, just a few huts away. Evelyn lay awake, wondering. Noah had grown to be her closest friend. She loved him as she loved the others. He had tried to tell her once that the love had possessed for her was not the same as that kind of love. But she had squashed the conversation before it grew problematic and now all of those feelings were gone. They died out as soon as they stopped being nurtured.
She was surprised when she heard his steps approach her door that night and he whispered, “I can’t sleep.” He came in and lay down beside her. They wrapped themselves up in each other and fell asleep despite the newborn.
But she did not love him. Of that she was sure.
Time made her curious. Every so often she would take off and explore the wreckages of their old village and the villages beyond theirs. There was never any change to it so she pushed her journeys further and further afield. She would always walk alone; she did not know what she would find because she did not know what she was looking for. But she would not be the one who risked the safety of her family for her whimsical adventures.
On one occasion, she did come across something curious. It was a map, looking exactly the same as the one that had been left in their trunk, the one she carried around in her pocket at all times during these expeditions. This one was weather damaged, bleary from rainfall, barely legible but there was one more notable difference between her map and this one. There was large black circle clearly marked around a village that looked that it had once stood perhaps thirty miles away from their own.
Her desire to find that place became insatiable. She had to know what was there. She made the decision that to go back home now would waste her days journey, she was much closer to the black circle here than if she went home and started afresh on a different day. She decided not to go back. The others would be wracked with worry when she did not return home but once she eventually came back and explained, all would be forgotten. Especially if she found something worth finding.
She walked and got lost frequently. She pushed on until she could no longer see her hand before her face at which point, she flopped to the forest floor and slept a dreamless sleep. All the time in the woods had turned her wild, sleeping in the open did not bother her in the least. After so long she struggled to remember her father’s face, she couldn’t remember what her home had looked like, she did not remember if she had a middle name or not. She was feral now.
It turned out that thirty miles was a very long way. It took four days of walking in blisteringly hot weather with a parched throat and bleeding feet before she arrived at what she believed was her destination until she realised that she had overshot by five miles and needed to double back on herself.
Eventually, when she did find the place, she wished that she hadn’t. She wished that she had screwed up the map and discarded the idea of going there because she could never unsee this now; this would be with her forever.
Here and there on the open stretch of land, stood remnants of buildings that had been burnt down in the fire, it looked like her own village, abandoned and with lush grass fertilized by the ash. Upon it was erected several huts, not dissimilar to the ones that they had built on the forest floor but much less sturdy. The huts meant one thing. People. And people meant that others had survived the onslaught of ten years ago and that meant they were no longer alone.
She forced herself to wait in the shadows of the trees; she needed to know first, were they Hopeful, Crooked, Undecided? She must be sure.
Then the direction of the wind changed. And the smell of death floated up to her on the breeze. It was so strong, so wasteful that she was instantly on her hands and knees retching up her makeshift breakfast. The acid of an empty stomach burned her throat.
She moved slowly towards the huts. She saw the birds first, circling low in the sky, hopping excitedly over the earth. They screeched wickedly together, laughing at the secrets that they knew but she had not yet discovered.
She reached the first of the huts and discovered the source of the smell. There were two of them, a tall man with a little withered woman at his side. Their pallor was grey and the birds had removed anything they could get to. Eyes, lips, fingers. Jane would say they had been gone for a least a few weeks, maybe longer.
Calmly, knowing nothing could be done, she moved on. She found fourteen more bodies, nine men and five women. Dry sobs caught in her throat, the panic was mounting. Had she come even a month ago, she might have been able to help the miserable souls. Something terrible had happened to kill all these people so abruptly. A disease? Famine? It struck her just how easily that could have been her family.
The people, as a rule were much older than they were. She would place them between thirty and fifty. They were all strangers to her but then even if she had once known them, ten years of living in the wilderness could change a person beyond recognition.
Then, just as she was about to turn on her heels and start to run and run and never stop, she reached the final hut. She stole herself once more and peered inside, nine pairs of startled eyes stared back at her, five girls and four boys. The hut possessed the same smell as the others but for some reason these children had been spared, but only just. One shirtless boy drew a rasping breath and his ribs appeared under his tissue paper skin. His eyes bulged, begging for help without uttering a word.
What Evelyn did next is another thing that nobody speaks of when they talk about her. What nobody mentions is that upon seeing the children she not rush in and attempt to save them, she did not hunt for food or water. She did not take the jumper from her back and offer it to the shirtless boy. Instead she bolted. Back past the dead of bodies of their parents and into the woods.
She rushed around under the canopy, getting more and more lost in her panic, drawing shallow and ineffectual breaths until everything became hazy and broken like snippets of a dream and that’s when she passed out.
She had no way of knowing how long she had been out cold. It could have been an hour or it could have been a few days. She probably would still be there had she not had the dream, which began as a nightmare. She saw violent flashing images of the deceased, with hollows where their eyes should be. She saw them fall one by one, with birds swooping down on them whilst they were still warm. Their children sat by watching, with nothing in their power to help them. And then their children morphed into her own children, the ones she had saved and reared for ten years. Children that had worked their way, like an intoxication, into her heart until they were the only reason she continued to keep trying.
She saw the grownups they had become, some with children of their own. They stood in the little hollow they had scooped out in the forest, arms about each other. There was a gap in the group, next to Noah, where she should be standing. But of course, she had not managed to return to her family because her cowardice had meant she had died out in the woods.
She woke. She dragged her tired, starved body from the forest floor and started to stagger back to where she hoped the settlement had been. It may have been the hardest thing she ever had to do, but upon waking it finally occurred to her that she was different, she was special and that her life was never meant to belong to her. It belonged to those who needed saving, who needed protection. It was up to her to restore what had been lost.
She tried to prepare herself for what she might see when she got there but nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.