Some said I was lucky because it only affected my hands; imagine if it had been all over my body, or even just half of it. And I guess that’s true. But then, it’s easy to say how lucky I am when you’re not the one who drops every object you try to hold, who shakes so hard at night that you can’t get to sleep – who wakes thinking perhaps it was all a dream and today it will be different, only to have that illusion shattered the second your brain rouses enough. It’s easy to say it’s not that bad when you don’t have to worry about the inevitable excessive trembling every time you try to get close to someone.
It’s easy when you don’t have to be me.
I headed for the only place there was to go. The river was still that evening, as if mocking me and my defective limbs. See? it seemed to say. Even I don’t move.
In fact, it was unnaturally still. The kind of stillness that foretold of bad things to come.
A shadow swallowed me in its mass, before moving to my side and standing very quietly.
‘I couldn’t stand to hear it all again,’ I said – whispered, even, for the winds were known to tattle on us.
‘I don’t suppose I could, either,’ Rene said. His voice held a calmness mine never did. I often wondered if my hands had induced a kind of permanent unease in me – or if my hysteria was, in fact, the root of my physical condition.
‘What’s the point?’ I came out with what was really on my mind.
‘The point of the story?’ he questioned, raising one of his mammoth hairy eyebrows that made him look a little like the trolls I always envisioned when my mother used to tell my baby sister fairytales at bedtime.
‘The point of this.’ I gestured at the river, but really I meant all of it – the land, the people, life. ‘Why do we need to know about the wolves, anyway? We all know what they are: death. And why live only to await that death? Why not speed up the process, save ourselves the anxiety over when it will be our turn to go?’
I could almost hear my words echoing in Rene’s big head – though I don’t mean he was stupid. He was by far the smartest one of our ‘tribe’. What I mean is that he was just so damn big. He stood at least two branches higher than me, his shoulders spread so wide that he could effortlessly engulf two of me if he wanted. And he was strong – strong of body and of mind, of spirit. He held it together so tightly, sometimes just being in his presence was enough to emanate soothing vibrations, to control the beating of my heart, slow it down from its usual frantic pace and lull me into something close to peace. How he got to be in our tribe, I would never understand. I suppose it was just because of his immensity, and that made him ‘freakish’ – but anyone with the sort of wisdom he possessed should not be cast out and left to die. He was not a cripple, not like me. I wondered if the wolves would even be interested in him. Surely even they could sense his greatness.
‘Why just sit and wait?’ he said at last.
‘Are you agreeing with me?’
‘Hm.’ He drew in his chest in an elephant’s breath. ‘No. I’m saying: why spend your time waiting for anything? It’s your life. Do something with it.’
‘Is that what you’re doing?’ I spat out, angry. I was often angry, usually for no good reason. ‘Are you taking charge of your life when you sit and listen to these stories every day? When you scrub the floors or take your turn in cooking some bland meal no one will ever thank you for, or stand guard to give us ineffectual protection from the monsters? Is that you being active?’
He looked out into the water, as if seeing something in it, other than just reflections. As if something lived down there, like the old stories said. Perhaps those stories were true. Perhaps all the so-called ‘fish’ got the right idea and leapt out when they could.
‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’ I demanded. My hands rebelled wildly against my wrists.
‘I think you know the answers to your questions,’ Rene told me, not meeting my eyes.
I take it back; he was an idiot. Or at least, he enjoyed playing at one and infuriating me.
I kicked at the dirt, black granules spraying on Rene’s bare feet.
‘You’re too young to be thinking such things,’ he tried to placate me. But it didn’t work.
‘I’m so sick and tired of everyone telling me I’m too young!’ I shouted. Even Rene was startled. We both darted looks around us to see if anyone had heard. Lowering my voice, I said, ‘How do you think it feels to be reminded I’m the youngest one here? That I was singled out when I was five? Even you were at least fifteen,’ I said accusingly, as if it were somehow all his fault. As if he were to blame for my disability landing me here with the elderly and decrepit.
As if any of them cared about dying soon, anyway. What did they have to lose, after all the years they’d already had?
Rene’s face was a cold moon of impassivity. Then he turned back to the water. ‘We’ll be okay,’ he said.
I rolled my eyes like the child I knew I still was, and wished I could be a little longer. Except deep down, I knew I wouldn’t last my 17th birthday, if even that.
He seemed to sense my eyeball exercises, and said, ‘I mean it. That’s why we’re here. They didn’t make us strike out on our own, you know. They put us together, gave us a group. There’s safety in numbers.’
‘Am I supposed to thank them?’ I heaved my foot – clad in a rotting old boot that was technically my size according to the number written inside, but it was really a men’s shoe, and that meant it was too big for me – at the ground, kicking up another spray of dirt that flew into the already-black water and built up the towers of sludge already growing there. I made to leave.
I felt Rene’s meaty hand on my shoulder. Under his touch, my body felt small and perishable.
‘Don’t go,’ he said softly. I whirled around to face him. He was never going to win any prizes for Most Handsome, but his intelligence danced in his eyes and hypnotised me.
‘Okay,’ I said. Then he forced me down to the ground with the pressure of his hand and we sat side by side on the dying grass. Neither of us said a word. Neither of us had to.
Some time later, he patted me on my arm and said, ‘Come on. It’s getting late. We shouldn’t be out here.’
I resented the truth of his words, but my sensibility won out. I stood with him. I looked at the river, now moving gently on its way, stirred by the first light wind of the growing darkness that would soon become night.Then we turned and returned to the huts.