Jane and her Rescuer
Jane and her Rescuer
Whilst she attempted to pluck up the courage to open her eyes and take in whatever new terror had befallen her, she decided it would be a good idea to get a sense of where she was first. She couldn’t be sure but she thought that the noise she could hear was that of a sizzling frying pan. And it didn’t make much sense but she thought she could hear birdsong. Why were there birds underground? She was probably hallucinating.
She was warm, as though she was lying in a patch of sunlight. But that could not be true because, again, sun could not permeate the earth. She wondered if she tried to move what she would be able to decipher from that. Pain was the first thing that struck her. It felt as though her body had been broken into many pieces like an old discarded mug and then stuck back together in the wrong configuration with something as ineffectual as toothpaste. After diagnosing the considerable pain she was in she thought she might be lying on something made of feathers. She was covered over with a blanket but that still didn’t make sense, for who would think to cover her with a blanket?
The last time she recalled regaining consciousness, she had been lying on the wet ground of the prison, wet mostly because she had been drowning in a pool of her own blood. She remembered the attack and vaguely recalled her body being torn to shreds. So naturally, she had woken to find herself completely paralyzed. She had called out weakly, not strong enough to form any words at all, just heavy, gurgled pleas. But of course no one had come to her. Before she lost all lucidity again she comforted herself with the thought that it wouldn’t be long now. There was not too much longer to wait.
But upon waking this time, it appeared she was still clinging on. She did not dare to think it, but she half wondered if she had been rescued. She could not fathom where she might be. But now there was a smell of cooking meat and her mouth filled with saliva and without thinking she opened her eyes and emitted a small groan of hunger.
“Don’t move,” a voice commanded. From what she could see she was lying in a room forged entirely of wood, wooden walls, wooden roof. There was a little window next to where she lying that was letting in fronds of sunlight, shining down upon her tattered form. She did as instructed; it hurt too much to do anything to the contrary.
A shadow passed before her eyes as a figure came forward. It was hard to tell because of the shaded light and also because of her delirium but she thought it was a man. He poured a little water between her lips which she gulped greedily and spluttered, wracking every inch of her body.
“Slowly,” he muttered.
A few minutes later he came forth with tiny lumps of the meat she had smelled cooking, it tasted nothing like any meat she had ever tried before, but it was tender and small enough to swallow and easily the most welcome thing she had ever eaten. She vaguely remembered learning something at school about protein being the thing that helped your body to heal. In that case she was going to need a lot of it.
“Extraordinary,” she heard him whisper before she switched herself off again.
Many weeks of stirring, yelping in pain and passing out again passed by before she was able to lift up her head and many more until she could raise a cup or fork to her mouth. The man attended to her dutifully, never leaving her side, administering food and water as often as he could coax her into it, changing her dressings and mixing concoctions of herbs to try and keep her alive.
His back was turned when she first spoke to him; he was gutting the fish he had caught that morning, which happened to be a rather lovely morning in March, already months past the incident in the prison.
“Hello,” he had replied, dropping his fish in surprise, slipping straight between his oily fingers.
The man before her was small, thin, wretched; his body was covered up with shreds of clothing. He was hunched up with age, his skin far too big for the bones it housed beneath. There was a little grey scrub of hair about his head, sprouts of it coming from his ears. He appeared so old, it appeared he had been evading death for so long that rather than dying his body was shrinking back inside itself until one day there would be a loud pop and he would vanish and that would be the end of that.
He crept a little closer to the girl and placed himself down upon a wooden stool, unable to take his cloudy eyes from her. It was a long time before either of them spoke.
“There’s rather a lot to say,” he croaked.
“I suppose so,” Jane replied, although she had no clue what those things might be.
“But I think that can wait,” he smiled, before continuing his work with the fish in silence.
The place Jane found herself appeared to be a house built up in the branches of a tree. Out of the window she could see boughs of other trees, falling over themselves with new greenery, holding their flourishing buds proudly out to the sun. A gentle breeze came in through the window. It played with bunches of lavender and thyme that hung from the ceiling. Bits and pieces of furniture sat here and there in the room, a chair, a woven rug, pots and pans stacked high, a couple of books on a table, a map pinned to the wall. The old man was sat on a porch that extended outside the door of the tree house, throwing waste into a bucket beside him making a soft ‘plunk’ sound with every fallen bone.
She shifted slightly and found that the pain had abated itself a little since the last time she had risen to consciousness. The worst of it appeared to be her shoulder, her back and an ankle. Upon scrutiny she found that she was bound almost head to foot in bandages which she supposed was a good thing. It stopped her seeing the scars.
Even now she had no better idea about where she was, how she came to be there and how she was still alive would always be a mystery. But for the moment, with the knowledge that the little man was looking after her she felt like taking a little nap would not be such a bad thing to do after all.
The cooked fish was presented to her on a little metal plate with a smile and the beginning of some stories.
He had started the story like this, “I suppose you know that you’re related to Evelyn?”
“That’s the reason why I ended up in this mess,” Jane nodded.
“It’s also the only reason you are still alive.”
He then began to tell her Evelyn’s story. She protested, because of course she had heard this multiple times. Evelyn took the children to the woods, raised them and they had begun the new life for The Hopefuls, everyone knew the story. But the old man shook his head.
“There are things which nobody knows to mention.”
She listened as he fell further and further into the impossible tale, a story of a love that should never have been, of a child that should never have been born. It defied everything they had stood for, it made a mockery of all the time they had spent looking to her for guidance. She dared not believe it, she wanted very badly for him to be mistaken. Surely, she of all people would know this story if it were true.
He spoke for a very long time; night fell down like a black sheet around them and the waking of the darkness animals started to stir on the ground below. When it appeared his story was complete, he looked at her and said, “I know you will not want to believe it. But I swear to you that it is true.”
“If it’s true, why doesn’t anybody else know about it?”
“Because there were only ever three people who knew the truth, Evelyn, Noah and Troy. Two of them are dead now,” he said.
“And the third?”
“Well, that’s how I know it is the truth.”
Perhaps it was because she was exhausted that she struggling to understand what he was telling her. What he was trying to suggest was a ridiculous proposition.
“It can’t be,” Jane whispered.
“But it is,” the old man said.
“It was years ago,” she replied. “Evelyn died years ago! No one is even sure how long ago it was.”
“I know, trust me. I know,” he muttered, his watery eyes shining over the light of the flame that sat on the table between them.
He would be impossibly old, older than any person had ever managed to live before. True, he would also be a Crooked and they lived much longer than any living thing ought to, but surely not this long. And yet, there was something about the way he looked at her and the familiarity of those eyes that made her banish any thoughts of disbelief.
“I was forbidden from dying. By Evelyn herself. She ordered me not to die; it was the last thing she ever said to me. And so I cannot die.”
“She gave you an order and you had to follow it?”
“Indeed. I was a Crooked and she gave me a command. And she never told me to stop and I was never able to override it and so here I am, even though she is long gone.”
The sadness of that fact swept over them both. Instructed to live by the woman he loved, unable to spend the life that she had ordered him to preserve with her and his child and then forced to continue thriving even after she had gone. She supposed that was why the man looked as though he was shrinking back inside himself, his life was not a natural one, his body was shriveling up as though it had been left in the sun for a hundred years too long.
“That must be torture,” Jane remarked, wondering how it would feel to live for eternity with only pockets full of secrets and a yearning for something that would always be lost.
“Everyday,” he nodded, his little fingers sewing themselves together.
She wanted to ask more questions, she wanted to know how he learned he had a child; she wanted to know how he had broken free of The Crookeds. But he was done in, he hadn’t spoken so much as a sentence to another human for a very long time and sitting there with the girl who was the spitting image of the woman he loved was becoming all a little too much. He stood up to leave, bones crunching in the silence and said, “She saved my life, she prevented The Crookeds from killing me. I just wish she hadn’t saved it for quite so long.”
Over the coming weeks, as Jane became stronger little by little, he would let loose little tit bits of information. It was like he had been clutching onto a great handful of balloons for many years and every now and then he felt brave enough to cut one free. For example, one afternoon he returned with a basket of apples, he held one out to Jane and said, “These were her favourite thing to eat. They were harder to come by then, not so many trees.” And that was all she managed to get out of him that day.
Eventually Jane learned that the map pinned to the wall of his tree house was the one that had led her to the encampment where she had rescued the children. Upon inspection Jane could see the faded black circle of ink which proved the story. She learned that Evelyn had enjoyed fishing but hated hunting. She learned that she was a fast runner and a wicked climber of trees. And with a great pang in her heart, she learned that she too had a moon shaped birth mark on her knee.
It was a while until they sat down and discussed the next bit of the story though, the next bit being his part of the story, what happened to him afterwards. He told her that upon being recaptured by The Crookeds he was punished more highly than he had ever known them to do to any Hopeful. But of course, forbidden from dying he continued to live with the pain. He had explained the conundrum to The Crookeds. That he could not die because she had forbidden him from doing so. And they could not kill her because she was protected by his love for her. It was the most vicious of circles. The two were totally protected by each other’s love.
Upon learning that they were trapped, that the girl could end any hope The Crookeds had of regaining The Kingdom and that she could end their lives entirely with just a single word, The Crookeds furiously retreated. They abandoned the prison; they emptied any secreted little holes they possessed. They did not even return to their city that they had so proudly built up from the rubble. They simply vanished; even Troy did not know where they had gone.
Troy then revealed that he had returned to Evelyn. He wanted to find her and tell her that it was over and they could forget the whole horrid mess and start again. But of course, by the time he managed to get to her, she had already had the baby and her fingers were interlaced with another man’s. Troy had walked away, knowing that however much he might desire it, there could not be a place for him there after all.
He reluctantly told Jane that he completed the tunnel that he had started to dig, the one that linked the prison and Evelyn’s home. He agreed that it was pathetic but at least it had kept him busy.
“I was never able to let her go. I spent my days not belonging anywhere and sitting underneath the trapdoor, listening to her voice helped me to pretend that I did.”
It was from those times, secreted away under the earth that he learned the baby was called Troy and that the baby was surely his after all. But he also learned that Evelyn seemed happy and he could not bring himself to ruin that again, not for anything.
And so he had lived his life underground and in the shadows, watching over the family in the woods. He witnessed all of the events from a distance, he saw them burn down The Kingdom and he was there when her next child was born. He was there when they all started to build the village that had been Jane’s home; he smiled to himself whenever Evelyn slyly returned to the hollow in the earth that had used to be theirs. It was insufferable but he could still feel her loving him after all that time and that would just have to suffice.
He had aged slowly, watching with curiosity as his peers, Jane and Noah, grew so much more haggard, so much faster than he did. His son seemed to grow at warp speed; soon he was taller and broader than Troy had ever been. Troy watched him in sorrow and delight, noticing the ways in which they were the same with pride.
The village became larger, life became more lustrous and then all of a sudden, Evelyn had died. She went a few weeks before Noah who had then followed suit in despair. Troy wasn’t sure why she had died; perhaps it was just that her number was up. When the distress of it all threatened to envelop him, he reminded himself the only reason she managed to find time to meet her number was because of him. And that meant he deserved the smallest of congratulations.
Once she had gone, Troy found it impossible to be too close to the village. He built his tree house quite a distance from anything.
“Where are we exactly?” Jane had asked.
“It would take a few weeks to get back to your village,” he had said. “I didn’t want to be found by anyone. In fact there’s only one person, who has ever found this place,” Troy smiled.
“Who was that?”
‘”Another story, for another night,” Troy had finished, concluding another days tales.
Before falling asleep that night, Jane wondered if she would ever be strong enough to make the journey back to her own home. She also wondered if there would be anything there at all to go back to. Perhaps it would be favorable to just stay put. She and Troy were in the same lonely boat after all, bobbing along on a black sea of tar. Troy perhaps knew better than anyone what losing everything felt like.
“I just wanted to warn you, before it happens. I will have to go back home one day,” Jane said, one morning as the autumn was starting to approach. She was sat up on the bed, daring herself to rise to her feet and yet knowing that her ankle was still not ready to take the strain. It had nearly been a year since the dreaded day and still it was only now that her superficial scars were healed and no longer needed bandages, her shoulder would never be the same again, a large chunk of her flesh having been removed from it but at least it was no longer painful. So really, it was just the ankle that had been shattered beyond all recognition, still hinged to a makeshift splint, which was hindering any kind of onward journey.
“Well, of course you will,” Troy had replied, not even looking up from the weaving he was doing.
“There might not even be anything there,” Jane whispered.
“Of course there is,” Troy said.
Jane didn’t push it any further, she did not want to hear before she was ready what may or may not be waiting for her there.
Had anyone chosen to stick their noses in through the window, as chilly October days became frozen solid December days they would have seen two shivering little creatures. One who was too old to bother moving and one who was too weak. Troy had spent a long time preparing for the winter. He had put a great amount of effort into gathering enough food to keep them going and he had spent an age weaving extra rugs to hang on the walls in an attempt to insulate the place.
Had they continued to watch they would have seen Jane stand for the first time in a year. Finally her bones had welded themselves back together enough to hold her weight. Jane discovered that she was at least a head taller than Troy. His eyes had filled up with tears, pleased that his splint had finally done the job and sad that she would soon be gone too.
They would have overheard conversations that were the first of their kind and they would have learned secrets so precious that they would be only the third person on the earth to hold them in their hands.
“How did the rules come to exist? How did you know about them in the first place?” Jane had asked one day.
“Yes, complicated and curious aren’t they? I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t really know the answer. Here is what I know of the matter.”
“As I was travelling to see Evelyn one afternoon, my path was blocked by a woman. She was elderly, swathed in cloaks and she looked at me as though she had been expecting me to pass by there. The trees around her were full of birds. Their music had filled the air. She said, ‘Let’s be quick. Don’t ask too many questions.’ I wonder if that description means anything to you?” Troy had asked with a little smile, revealing the gaps where his teeth should be.
“Yes, I think it rather does,” Jane had nodded, feeling more than a little sick and refusing to believe that the old woman could possibly be as old as Troy as well.
“She led me away from the path and explained to me that she knew who I was, what had happened to me, what was happening between Evelyn and I. It was she that told me about the rules. Why we had to do as Evelyn said and of love protecting any Hopeful whom was loved by a Crooked. Are you still following?” he asked.
Jane nodded, not altogether convinced that she was.
“Of course, I had been confused too. I wanted to know how the rule had come about and I wanted to know why it was that I had to do as she instructed me, what was it about Evelyn that granted her such power? But the woman had called her birds to attention, given me a wry smile and then she was gone,” Troy shrugged. “I made peace with not knowing why eventually, because it meant that she had lived and that she was able to frighten The Crookeds so much that they had retreated. I never saw the woman again. But I did meet someone who looked just like her, a while ago now. But she carried her birds in a heavy brass cage.”
“You saw her?” Jane asked, the woman had always been more than she appeared.
“The only person to ever locate my tree house. It was very early one morning and she had shouted up to me, ‘Wake up, you old man!’”
“That sounds like her,” Jane chuckled.
“Of course, she knew the whole story. And she told me everything that had happened and everything that was about to happen and what she needed me to do to help you. She told me that on the 18th of October, you would end the war once and for all. She said that after that the prison would be abandoned and that you would need rescuing and I would be the only person able to do that. And so that was what I did,” the old man said.
For the first time in the long time that Jane had been with him, he extended his withered hand to her and she took it in her own. Suddenly, it felt like everything was making much more sense. She realised that the old woman had known much more than she had ever let on. She owed her life several times over to her and she owed her life to this man, older than time, older than anyone deserved to live. It felt like she would never stop saying thank you. But just then, she said nothing. His hand in hers was enough for that moment.
Who she was and why she was special was about so much more than she could have ever imagined. Upon examining all the pieces of the story her head started to spin a little, but one of the most conclusive conclusions that she could come to was this: she was special because she had come from one of the most unlikely places. She had come from a love that had been born by hate. And just how often can we say something like that happens?
Before Jane felt like she could leave there was something more she needed to know. The day that she managed to lower herself to the forest floor for the first time in the longest time was a very special one. The snow drops were poking their tender heads up through the ground and winter had already tipped its hat and made way for spring.
They had been sat together, feet dangling in the river when she had asked a question that had been plaguing her for far too long.
“You and Evelyn had a child. And Noah and Evelyn had a child,” she had said.
“That’s right,” Troy had said, lifting his head in surprise.
“I’m curious, there being two branches of genes in the Shepherd family. Which branch do you think I belong to?”
“Well, Shepherd was not my surname. It was Noah’s.”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Jane nudged delicately.
“Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure. But I think I know what side I would place my bet on. And I think you do too,” he said to her, an old man taking hands with the girl who had his eyes.
“Do you not wonder why it was your injuries didn’t kill you?” he asked. “You lost far too much blood, you should have died. But you didn’t die simply because you couldn’t. Because as long as a Crooked loves a Hopeful, they cannot be killed. And that is the rule.”
That of course, was the truth of the matter. After the bird woman had visited and told Troy of her existence just knowing that she lived and was part of his own flesh and part of Evelyn, was enough for him. She lived through her ordeal in the prison for the simple reason that he loved her. Love, in this case, did turn out to be enough to save the day.
Jane’s time to leave arrived sometime in May during her nineteenth year on the planet. She had been fully recovered for a few months by then but hadn’t had the heart to leave Troy behind and of course, he would not come with her. She had spent the time trying to make his home more comfortable for him, friendlier for a man with ever tiring limbs. He had helped prepare a map to get her back to the village safely; if she walked constantly it should only take about two weeks for her to return. Jane would still not discuss what she hoped would be there waiting for her.
They ate a final meal together in the little tree house, perched by the door, listening to the birds and thinking how funny it was that they had spent such a long time in each other’s near silent company. What Troy asked next, almost didn’t come as a shock to her. His last request was this. He wanted her to undo Evelyn’s command; he was not even sure if it would work, given that Jane was not Evelyn and commands such as this really were quite a personal thing. What he wanted now everything had been put to rights, now Jane was safe and he had told all his secrets, was to pass on. And instead of complaining and refusing, Jane only nodded because were the boot on the other foot, Jane would have wanted exactly the same thing.
Jane was heading out with a small bag of provisions, the map from the wall and a heavy heart. The pair breathed in and out as one, Jane said a few magic words and then the light left the ancient little man. It was just as though he had taken a draft of sleeping solution. No sooner had the words escaped her than he had gone.