The morning was bright with sunshine and abuzz with insect life as I took my woven basket and entered the bushland beyond our vegetable garden, walking until the farm was hidden from sight and sound.
Counterpoints of drama, life and death, ebbed and flowed against the edges of my mind. I tried to block it out, put it into a box, like the one Lark had described to me… but my box was full of holes and was of such a shoddy construction I was rather ashamed of it, I thought wryly.
Scavenging for one thing often led to collecting others and I found some edible mushrooms that could be added to our midday meal, and some fat, white bodied grubs that squirmed in protest. Little deaths. My family would eat them raw, alive and wriggling between the pearly death of teeth, but I could not stand the little death to occur within my own head. It resonated badly and would make my bile rise in protest. So, these grubs were for Lark, and not for me.
The larger life was snuffed in a sudden moment of violence that took me by such surprise I dropped my basket, scattering greenery, mushrooms and fat grubs alike. Larger deaths did occur, of course, within the bushland, but normally there was some warning of a predator in the area, so it did not come so rudely.
The larger Death’s pull was irresistible, dark velveteen, rich and ripe. I crept through the undergrowth, helpless to the siren call of it.
A man had felled a large hopper.
I hid, crouched in the roots of an overgrown shrub.
Men did enter the bushland to hunt, of course, but rarely as deep as our farm lay. Hunters did not have to venture deep into the bush to find their prey: our area was not heavily populated and so the prey was not overhunted. It was unusual to encounter a hunting party. Or any party… It was not easy walking through the undergrowth, and if someone were travelling from point A to point B, they did so via the most direct and easiest route, like the road.
This man was not a hunter. His clothing was… not just wrong, but completely foreign. Black, head to foot, a black that shifted and gleamed in the light, but also swallowed it into shadow. The black formed a close-fitting helmet over his head, and smoked glass covered his face. Weapons were worn at hip, clasped to his calves, at wrist and bicep, strapped across his back. Some were familiar but also different in make, their handles smoother and shape sleeker.
He paused in his butchery, angled his head slightly my direction, as if listening for something. I did not dare to breathe, lest I gave my position away. For an age it seemed, we stayed that way, but then he seemed satisfied and resumed his work, a black bladed knife swiftly separating hide from flesh, bone from meat, and join from joint.
Twice more he paused, seeming to turn the smoked glass my way. Once I thought I heard a voice, muffled, spoken from behind that shining shield. I crouched lower, fearful he was not alone, and yet no other approached from the bushes around, so I had to assume that if he had spoken, it was to himself… or me.
My heart stuttered hard in my chest, loudly in my ears. I breathed shallow and fast as I tried to keep the sound of my breath as quiet as possible. The bushland was still, eerily and uncommonly so. A stillness that seemed to give significance to the meeting and threatened to carry any little sound I might make easily to him.
I teetered between fear of how swiftly that efficient blade could end my life, and a feeling that perhaps echoed my mother’s empathic ability: a sense that he knew of my presence and intended me no harm.
He took the tail, the legs, the heart and kidneys, and packed it in a silver sack that expanded like magic from a tiny package withdrawn from a hidden pocket in his trousers. He laid the other cuts from the corpse on top of the neatly debrided hide, leaving behind a tidy, gorily clean carcass, and a neat offering like package of meats and skin.
And then he lifted the sack to his shoulder and walked away.
Why would he leave perfectly fine meat behind? I wondered. Was my feeling that he had known I was there to be trusted? Was the meat a gift, a gesture of goodwill?
Or a trap?
The bush offered no answer, nor did its leaves and branches, shadows and shimmers, give sight of any lurking man in black waiting to pounce upon me.
My legs protested as I stood, blood flowing once more through them. I went forward, carefully, not trusting my cramped limbs to move swiftly if needed. And yet, thrift was ingrained deep into me by our parents, and food was not to be wasted, nor a perfectly good hide.
I took it, bundled meat in hide as his arrangement of such indicated I should do, and nothing happened.
I hurried away as if pursuit was at my heels.
The farm seemed untouched, serene and indifferent to the significant encounter, and that sat in discord to my inner unsettlement. I crossed garden, past grumpy goat, and fossicking chickens, into the house where Lark was washing dishes.
“You are late back. Your breakfast is cold,” she wiped her hands on her skirt as she turned to face me and frowned. “What is that, and where is your basket?”
I had forgotten the basket in the bush. I winced, I would have to go back for it – baskets were labour to make and should not be discarded carelessly. “I saw a man in the bush.”
Her gaze turned inward. “Not near enough that I can hear,” she said, her grey eyes thoughtful, at which I released a breath, as it had occurred to me that he might follow me home. I told her of his kill, and how the meat and hide had been left.
“You should have left it!” she rubbed her temples. “He will now know there’s someone nearby if that were his intention. An animal would have scattered the meat and hide, not removed it so neatly, and worried the bones.”
“I am sorry, I did not think of that,” I felt the heavy hand of fear on my chest. “Should I return it, do you think?”
“Too late now, I expect,” she said. “And there is the other possibility that he knew you were there. He may have been stalking the hopper for some time and crossed your path with you unknowing. Perhaps he thought you must be from a larger settlement, and that by leaving some of his kill, he might pass un-molested.”
“I did not think that.” I felt foolish.
“Either way, we’ll let the basket sit for a day or so, I think,” she said. “Maybe until father is home. We should not venture alone beyond the boundaries of the farm. He may not be alone, and we don’t know his intention. It’s best to assume the worst, rather than regret it.”
“That seems wise,” I agreed, and yet, there was a twinge of something else in me; some little but rather vocal part of me wanted to return, to find where he camped, and spy upon him. I also realised I had not described his clothing, weapons and helmet to Lark, and the strangeness of it. And, although I should have spoken, I did not, for a reason I could not quite name.
“We shall have to work twice as hard tomorrow,” she continued, “so as not to fall behind on the paper. Mother will expect us to have made our usual quota by their return, and I would hate to let her down.”
“Stupid paper,” I grumbled. “What does it do for us? Useless, boring scribbles that are never read…”
“We trade it, too,” she reminded me, patiently. “I know you hate making paper, but it’s tradition, and we have to uphold it, and it helps to provide for us, so is important.”
“Have you ever thought, we should read the writings?” I asked her. “Surely things are writ in order to be read.”
“No,” she shook her head. “We write to record, to journal what was, what is. Not to read it ourselves. In this, we serve a greater purpose, this is our contribution to history.”
“Why? Why is that? What harm would us reading do? We can rewrap and put it back, and not have changed our contribution a bit.”
“Because if we were meant to read it, the job of reading and writing would have been passed down, not just that of writing,” she replied.
“I think we should read them,” I said, stubbornly. “Whilst mother and father are gone, we should read them, and then put them back. They would never know, and maybe we will have learned something.”
“What?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “What do you think we would learn?”
“Why we are as we are. What exactly happened before.”
“And you think the answers are written on the texts kept by generation after generation of farmers?” she was surprised. “We are not important people, important things do not happen to us, or around us. Such important events would not be held within the pages of our family’s records. Maybe a different way to make paper, or a different recipe for bread… but the answers for why things are as they are, and what they were before? No, not likely.”
“Why do we keep the texts if not because they hold something important?” I picked up a trinket father kept on the shelf, a thing of metal, its purpose unfathomable, its manufacture beyond anything we could now produce. “We have seen the wreckage in the village, the vehicles they used to have, we have seen pieces recycled and repurposed of their old technology, that we no longer understand the original use of, and we have seen father repair pieces that we still can use, amazing things. Can you imagine what life was once like? Why did it stop? Mother says because of people like us, and that others fear us. Why? I want to know.”
“And you think our family’s writings will tell you?” she was still dubious, but also, I sensed, intrigued. “We could not spend enough time reading all that is down there, to find the answers, within the next couple of days, without falling far, far behind in our work, and mother and father would know that we had spent our time in a different way,” she said practically.
“We could read some, maybe find the oldest ones, and start there?” I suggested. “It would not need to take so long. I could read it out loud, whilst you make paper.”
“Ha,” she laughed, “is that your purpose, to evade paper making?”
“No,” but I grinned, “it’s an added benefit, though.”
“I will think about it,” she said, which was a concession. I could not ask for anything else. “In the meantime, you can put that meat in with some herbs, and I will cook it for my lunch.”