The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, the sensation crawling into my hairline and down my spine.
Someone was watching me.
It was a ridiculous thought. Our farm lay deep in bushland, off the road, and a day from the nearest village; the possibility of someone passing by was minimal.
I sat back on my heels anyway, deep in the tidy rows of our vegetable garden, and scanned the line where garden met bush. I could see nothing out of the ordinary.
I could hear Lark singing to the chickens as she collected the eggs, the fall of father’s axe as he chopped wood, and I had just left my mother, sleeves rolled to her elbows, pulverizing pulp for paper.
Other than the chickens, our old donkey Maurice, and the nanny goat Florence, there were no other eyes that could be watching.
I tried to shake the feeling as I returned to tending the garden, plucking weeds from the soil, and keeping an eye out for slugs. We crushed eggshell and scattered it around the plants to discourage the pests, but some always found a way through.
It was not the first time I had had the sensation of being watched, knowing it was not possible; flights of fancy in the boredom of daily life. Today was no different.
“On edge,” I told myself.
It was probably a reaction to the small thing that had died in the night beneath the spinach leaves. Lost to the cold, lost to a predator, it did not matter how it was lost, lost it was. Little lives, so fragile and fleeting, often scattered the morning with their remnants, lingering in confusion, stuck in the bewilderment of sudden death.
The small death tugged seductively at the edges of my mind, teasing me, entreating me to follow it to its source, tap into it and use it. I resisted. The remnant would fade as the sun warmed the soil, going wherever it was that dead things go.
With my fingers deep in the soil, still chill and damp from the night, I pushed life into the roots of a struggling plant. To be able to make things grow was useful, but this affinity for death felt perilous, dark, and perhaps, not clean, and I held the velveteen call of it a close secret.
The little death faded, as little deaths do, and after a while, the tension in my scalp, the sense of being watched, eased.
I took my harvest to the kitchen, avoiding the side of the house where mother worked making paper so I could not be drawn into the task.
My father’s family were record keepers, recording the daily meticulously in their hide bound journals. The records were begun, according to my father, by his great-grandparents, and the duty was handed down to his grandfather, his mother, and to him. One day, Lark or I would carry it on.
Making paper was a tedious job, and one I hated. It seemed pointless to expend so much energy and time making it as father’s journal, at the end of the year, was wrapped in hide, waterproofed with oil and wax, and placed within a wooden box in the secret, hidden, dark cellar beneath our little house, never to be seen again.
In addition to the waste of time and resources, our lives did not make interesting reading. We did not travel beyond the village, and for the last year only our parents had travelled there, leaving Lark and I behind to tend the farm. Our daily tasks, our small existence, would hold no interest should anyone ever read the records. We were not the sources of historic changes and our farm was not the stage of significant events.
And yet, every evening, our father pulled his chair close to the fire for its inconstant light, straining his eyes and scribing so carefully, well thought out, concise and factual accounts of the day, and every day we prepared paper, keeping a constant stock ready for him.
I took my basket into the bush. Idleness was not an option but disappearing into the trees gave a certain freedom that being closer to the farm would not afford me. If I returned with a full basket, I would not be accused of shirking work.
In the trees, I could be apart and alone with my thoughts, without having to worry about being observed or overheard.
I gathered plants as I walked. The thick stemmed grasses and fragrant leaves would be stewed in lye, broken down into pulp, and dried into the thick lumpy paper father used for his journal, and the finer grasses and sour weeds would go to the chickens.
I made my way through the undergrowth to the little creek that crept through the trees. We had a well and water tanks at the farm, and the creek was not deep enough for edible fish, so unless it was a wash day, my family did not come here. It was, therefore, like having my own private retreat.
I took off my boots and soaked my feet in the water. It was cold enough to make me gasp and blow out my breath as I acclimated. The seasons were turning, and the sun was not bright enough to warm the rocks through which it ran. I waded knee deep to collect the watercress from amongst the rocks. Basket full, my excuse for being away from the farm fulfilled, my time was my own…
I lay on the bank, in a spot where the sun breached the leaves of the trees, and closed my eyes, breathing in the solitude. The bush was never really quiet; there was always life, bird song, small creatures in the undergrowth, the wind stirring the leaves… but compared to the farm, and the noise of father’s repairs, or Lark and mother about their daily tasks… it was more peaceful.
I could feel the flow of life, the birds flitting through the trees, the marsupials asleep in the branches, the snake that slithered by on the hunt for the busy mice that nested in the undergrowth… each creature left a trail of energy in its wake, something dynamic and unique to them.
There were flickers of death. The bush was never without it. The snake made a kill, and a bird caught an insect… Passing moments of transition, briefly felt before they dissipated.
There was a… void. Something unfamiliar.
My skin crawled with awareness.
A twig cracked, as if underfoot.
I shot to sitting, looking around warily.
The bush stilled, as if watching and waiting.
For a moment, the loudest thing in the area was my breath; unsteady. I tried to calm it, and my heart, but my instinctual response over-rode me. The tension in my shoulders was almost painful.
I rose to my feet slowly and took my basket by its handle as I stepped close to the trunk of a tree, to press my back against it and listen. My hair stirred in a slight breeze. I closed my eyes, in my mind it was a hand, reaching like a lover to touch my cheek.
The birdsong resumed. Whatever it was, they were not alarmed. I breathed out slowly. I was letting my imagination run wild. “Bored and lonely, Briar,” I whispered, “letting your mind get carried away. Stop it now.”
I took another deep breath, and pushed myself away from the tree, walking back through the undergrowth with a false attitude of confidence, when that uneasy part of me wanted to run.
The day was getting old. “Where have you been?” Lark scolded as I passed through the vegetable garden. She carried her bow and arrow in her hand. “The day’s chores were done without you.”
I waved my basket at her.
I fed the chickens their weed and placed the grasses and leaves in the basket of such items collected for making paper.
Mother joined me and kissed my cheek. “Thank you darling,” she said cheerfully, and paused, stroking her fingers through my hair. “Oh, Briar,” she sighed. She wrapped her arms around me. “Always so glum.”
“Sorry mother,” I apologised.
“I shouldn’t pry,” she frowned a little, “but you walk around in a dark cloud most days now, it seems.”
“It’s nothing,” I shrugged. “Just… us.”
She nodded empathetically. “It’s not all bad, darling,” she told me. “Your father and I found each other. There are others like us, out there. Your time will come.”
I smiled, but it was show only, and she knew it.
“I got the damn thing!” Lark yelled from the vegetable garden.
“Oh, fabulous,” mother cheered. “Rabbit stew.”
As darkness fell outside, mother cooked the stew over the fire, whilst father added to his journal:
“Briar collected the lye, and Meadow and Lark made soap and paper with it.
“Lark felled a rabbit that was eating our vegetables, and Meadow made it into stew tonight.
“I, Wren, repaired the roof, and moved the seasoned wood to the store nearer to the house. Winter approaches, and the signs are that it will be a cold and long one.
“Tomorrow, Meadow and I will make the trip to the village, to trade for cloth and a new axe head. I will collect repairs that I may do for Adam, over the winter -”
“I want to go,” I interrupted, setting aside my sewing in preparation for the argument. “To the village,” I clarified when father looked at me blankly, lost in the train of thought I had interrupted.
“No,” mother did not look up from the herbs she was crumbling into the pot, the firelight caught the silver that threaded through her dark hair. “You cannot barter for supplies as I can, you will come back with half what I can get, and I want to see Calla’s new baby.”
“We can’t all go,” father anticipated my next argument. “Lark cannot abide the village.”
“It is so noisy there,” Lark apologised. “I cannot think straight for all the conversations around me.”
“It is not safe for her to stay here alone, and not safe for her to go,” mother agreed. “The fear that tore this land apart still lies just below the surface. It will not take much for friends to become foes. We must always be careful, and never show what we can do that others cannot.”
“Imagine if everyone had abilities, and we never knew, because everyone was hiding them in fear of what others would do,” I poked my finger on my needle and sucked it scowling. “If we were all open about them, no one would need to be afraid, but because we’re afraid, everyone continues to live in fear.”
“That would be a very sad story, Briar,” mother agreed. “However, let’s not confuse stories with real life. In this life, right now, right here, our abilities are best kept hidden.”
They exchanged a look, and father scratched his beard, a nervous habit as he did not like conflict. “We’ll be back in four days. You will be safe here.”
“We will be fine,” Lark assured him.
“I am sorry Briar,” she whispered to me as we took to our loft bed for the night and she braided my hair for sleep. “It is just overwhelming with so many people so close by, all having these conversations with themselves in their heads, all the time. And the things they think of…”
“What do they think of?” I wondered, intrigued. I had never asked. Our abilities were not open topics for conversation, any more than when Lark and I became women and began our monthly bleeding. If Lark spoke to a parent about her ability, it was in private, in the same way mother had drawn us each aside and discussed the functions of our bodies when she thought the time was right.
She considered for a moment, chewing her bottom lip, her dark braids making her look younger in the muted firelight that filtered up from below. Discussing it was as much a novelty to her as it was to me to hear, a little daring, like sharing a secret.
“What they have to do next, what they want to do instead. Whether they’re more attractive than another person, whether they would look better in what that person was wearing, and what they’d be like in bed. Most think a lot about their bowels – hunger, whether they need to pass wind,” she giggled slightly, then sobered. “Some are sad, worried, frightened. And some are just awful, awful people. It’s just… not nice, what some people think about.”
“And us?” I asked quietly, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
“I can control it,” she said, a little defensively. “When it’s only a few people. I can put it in a – a kind of box in my head. Occasionally, something slips past, but mostly, I can keep it locked away.”
“Don’t you get tempted…” I turned my head to look at her.
“No,” she was firm, gazing up at the raw wood beams above us. “No, I don’t want to hear my family’s private thoughts. It is bad enough when things slip past sometimes.” She turned to look back at me. “It doesn’t always make sense, either. Context makes a difference, and unless I listen for a long time, there isn’t context to a stray thought.”
“Have you heard any of my thoughts… that could use context?” I wondered if she had heard those moments where I was distracted by the death of something near me, and what she made of them.
“Well, yes, actually,” she frowned darkly. “Do you really find Eris that attractive?” she asked me sternly.
“Oh skies,” I threw my hands up to my face. “Lark, nooo, don’t go there.”
She laughed, bright and sparkling into the darkness.
“Go to sleep!” father complained from the bedroom below. “Some of us have to be gone with the dawn.”