Fire Under the Skin

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Chapter 2



…standing up to three feet high at the shoulder, clad in rough, shaggy hair in shades of brown and grey. The coat may have been parti-coloured as a form of camouflage in its natural (forest? savannah?) environment, or it is possible that individuals were single coloured. Remaining specimen parts could support either hypothesis. Great paws and long legs suggest it was strong and fast, and may have run its prey down. Its teeth were made for rending and tearing, and its powerful jaw was anchored with strong muscles. It is said that once it took a grip, it would never let go until either it or its prey was dead.

-Long and Merideth’s Mythical Beasts

Garand opens the shop at six every day. He begins by sweeping the floor and pushing the debris out into the street and round the corner onto the bank by the ditch. This has the effect of making the store frontage look considerably cleaner than the rest of the street. He drags the old downpipe from round the side of the house and uses it to prop up the sagging, rotten-cloth awning.

Stepping back he surveys the effect and nods to himself, satisfied he’s done the best he can. Sweet potatoes and some wilted cabbages go out first, in a couple of wicker baskets he acquired last week. It’s important for shoppers to see the perishable stuff first. Against the baskets he props a sign that reads: ‘Home-made bread. Bring your ground grain to be turned into bread. 1 cup of water per loaf. Yeast/prep in exchange for any food item. Enquire within for rates.’

As he turns to walk back inside he sees a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye: a grubby fist delving into the basket of sweet potatoes. “Gerroutofit,” he growls, making an abortive movement towards the fist’s owner with his broom. A tiny child, no more than three or four years old and stunted by malnutrition, peers around the side of the basket, huge eyes wide with fright. One hand is stuffed into its mouth and the other clutches the dusty skirt of the older girl whose fist was caught in the act of theft. He looks them over, trying to decide if he has seen them before. The trouble is that all these filthy urchins look the same: dusty clothing, dusty faces, hair brown with dirt, eyes gummed and sore. Nothing but ribs and sinew under the ragged clothes. Still, he thinks he’d have remembered these two. Perhaps there’s been a new wave of migration. Or perhaps somebody’s mother has died in childbirth, and the orphans discarded, unwanted by their neighbours, no use to anyone. Who can say?

Garand reaches into his pocket and pulls out a chunk of stale, mixed grain bread. He waves it at the children, who duck back behind the baskets. He can hear them breathing. Breaking the bread in his hands he throws the two pieces into the street, and turns away so that he won’t have to see whether the older child will share with the younger. They haven’t much chance of making it through childhood. He’s done what he could.

Grumbling to himself he shuffles through to the back of the shop. Behind the counter a doorway leads to a small room, where fire in a tidy iron grate whispers to itself. He takes up the kettle and, lifting its lid, peers into the depths. Enough water for a single cup. No waste. He hangs the kettle from an iron hook depending on a chain from the ceiling and swings it over the fire. While it slowly heats he considers his options for breakfast: limited, as he’s just given the last of his bread to the urchins. ‘Foolish,’ he mutters to himself. ‘Sentimental.’ No light matter: such things can get you killed, or at least get you into a state in which survival becomes far less likely.

He reaches into a cupboard and unwraps a wizened apple from its paper covering, carefully smoothing out the paper and placing it back in the box of fruit before raising the apple to his nose and smelling it. It’s dry, yellow and wrinkled, but a sweet scent clings to it and the rush of autumn memories it brings is dizzying.

Garand is transported to a wild, overgrown orchard of ancient, misshapen trees laden with fruit. The memory ,triggered by scent, is very strong; he hadn’t smelt fruit for such a long time. The floor of the orchard was carpeted with fallen, overripe fruit, and the air filled with the sweet, rotten smell of fermenting fruit and the endless buzz of wasps, enjoying the fallen harvest. He sat on the grass and gorged himself on the fresh fruit, almost gagging on the cidery sweetness but unable to stop himself eating until he felt sick. Then he lay back on the grass, stomach full to bursting, and slept under the shade of the heavy boughs, waking only when an apple thudded to the ground beside his head.

He left the windfalls for the birds and wasps, but picked as many as he could carry, and they had staved off scurvy all winter. He’d not shared them. A qualm of discomfort disturbs his digestion at the memory of the scouring diarrhoea the binge had brought him, although it didn’t make him regret indulging himself. He packed his booty in individual wraps of paper when he got home and laid them out in an open box to dry, remembering from his childhood the way this would keep the fruit from mould over the winter. Just the thought of them made him feel sick for several weeks, but eventually he grew bored with his winter diet of dried grains and meat and began to add apples to his stews for a welcome burst of flavour.

He knows that if he offers them for barter he will be overwhelmed with demand, and it doesn’t do to attract too much attention from those who live round about. So long as his wares are few and consist mostly of items produced by his semi-urban neighbours in the old back yards and gardens of the town, or traded from farms further afield, then he can exchange just enough to get by. If once he gives the appearance of richness, or surplus of any kind, he will invite the predatory interest of gangs. Most of the people he meets are pleasant enough, but Garand has seen a lot of the world in his fifty-three years. He knows that wherever animals gather there are predators, and where humans gather the predators look little different from their prey. Safety lies in looking harmless, and remaining as much as possible overlooked.

A whistle of steam from the kettle brings him back to the dusty present, and he swings the kettle away from the heat and pours its contents into a tiny teapot, adding a large pinch of dried leaves and swirling the liquid as he replaces the lid. He sits and watches the two blue dragons writhing on the creamy pottery surface, becoming gradually conscious of an ache in his bones and a twinge of pain from his back; sure signs that he’d stayed out too long this time. He’d been away from the shop for several days, travelling in the direction his neighbours could not go.

His traplines had caught nothing, and so rather than return home after resetting them he had spent two days in the old city, digging around the edge of a pit he’d identified on his last visit. He spotted metal in the pile, and a couple of days were enough to fill his pack with broken and unidentifiable pieces. It was a good haul; he arrived back with a rabbit and a possum hanging from the outside of his pack, and enough metal that he ought to be able to trade with the smith for a new knife. But he’d still been over the line for too long; aches and bruises that didn’t heal told him that.

The tea has steeped for long enough, and he pours it into a thin porcelain cup with a broken handle. The tea half-fills the cup and darkens the porcelain, showing up its pattern of pink roses. Garand sips it and sighs, feeling the warmth slide down into his stomach, and takes the first of several bites of the tiny apple. The tea doesn’t go to work immediately, but still the pocket of warmth in his middle seems already to be curing his pains. Not for the first time, he gives thanks to whatever gods or daemons are responsible for the tea. Without it, none of the rest would be possible.

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