It’s hot and stuffy inside the cramped, camel-dragged wagon, but Starling doesn’t really mind. She looks through a crack in the wall, at the dust kicked up by the rest of the townsfolk as they trek down the broken highway.
At least I’m resting my feet, she says to herself, even if I do have to look after mum.
She slumps back in her chair, eyeballing the other elders crammed in with them. The wind is
blowing hard, carrying the faint smell of the sea.
She sighs deeply.
“I’m bored,” she tells her mum.
“We’ll be there soon.”
Starling crosses her arms over her chest.
“I’m still bored. Tell me a story to kill some time. Tell me how you and dad met.”
Home was a half-horse town at the foot of an extinct volcano in the middle of the drought plains. I was born there. I won’t get to die there. None of us will, now that the spring’s dried up.
But thanks to your dad, I got to grow old there.
He wasn’t your dad back then. He was just a stranger who showed up late one afternoon at the tail end of summer.
He was bloody, bruised, battered.
One of the guards manning the gates didn’t want to let him in. Another guard pointed out that he was alone, hurt and young. A third guard noted that he obviously didn’t pose a threat.
So they let him in. You know the law: Help when you can.
Hands raised, he entered. Then he took two or three steps before collapsing onto the cracked road that led into town.
Before he passed out, he said one word:
I was there when he fell. I was there when he spoke.
Back then, I used to love hanging around the gate. Every day, after rushing through my lessons and chores, I’d head straight there rather than spend time with the other youngsters. They bored me. The boys just talked about girls, or fighting, or how they couldn’t wait to be old enough to start hunting. The girls just talked about boys, or what they’d learned that day, or how they couldn’t wait to have kids of their own.
So instead of listening to them rabbit on – or even worse, joining in – I used to badger the guards, asking questions about the old days. Sometimes they indulged me, sometimes they didn’t.
Whenever they didn’t, I’d just look over the sun-scorched plains, trying to imagine what they used to be like, imagining them full of people and houses and machines.
When your dad arrived, I was about the same age as you are now – no longer a girl, but not yet a woman.
The guards had brushed me off that day. I guess I’d worn them out, asked too many questions. I couldn’t help it. A fire burned in my belly, giving me too much energy. Apart from exhausting myself physically, the only way to douse it was by satisfying my curiosity.
I was given a name when I was born, but no one ever used it. The nicknames piled up instead, describing what I was rather than who I was.
I was the first one to help your dad after he fell. I cradled his head, and wiped some blood off his face.
One of the guards took over. Your dad came to, blinking fast. The guard held a wet rag to his mouth. He sucked at it greedily, and then suddenly smiled.
He had a nice smile, if you looked past his cracked lips and bad teeth. I tried not to stare.
“Go get Aunty,” the guard told me.
And so off I ran.
Aunty wasn’t in her caravan, or the village green, or the communal kitchen, or the fields where we grew our food.
That left only one other place to look.
I headed up the side of the volcano overlooking the town, my legs pumping. I stopped at the volcano’s rim, catching my breath and resting in the shade of the rickety tower that served as a lookout.
“Oi, Fidget, you alright down there?” someone yelled.
I looked up. My big brother – your uncle – was perched in the crow’s nest atop the tower.
“All good, bro,” I replied. “I’m just looking for Aunty.”
“She’s down below.”
“That’s what I figured. Thanks.”
“Hey, you got any water? I left mine in town.”
“You bet, heads up.”
He held out a full canteen, and then dropped it. Squinting in the sun, I let it fall rather than try and catch it. It hit the ground with a thunk but didn’t split open.
I took a long drink and then headed over the rim.
It was cooler inside the crater. I slowed down a little, trying to keep my feet, not wanting to tumble arse-over-tit. I found Aunty in one of the caves that disappeared into the earth.
It was her favourite cave, the one that let us live our lives.
She was sitting cross-legged next to the spring that burbled up from underground. Her eyes were closed. One hand rested in the water, feeling it flow through her fingers and into the system of channels that fed our fields.
“Hello, Rabbit,” she said, eyes still closed.
Somehow she seemed to know when someone was near, as if she could sense them. It always freaked me out a little.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
I got straight to the point, knowing how she hated it when people ummed and aahed.
“There’s a stranger here. He said something about raiders.”
Aunty’s eyes flicked open, and seemed to bore into me. I tried not to flinch.
She was suddenly on her feet, a smooth and effortless motion. She strode past me. I did my best to keep up.
Back in town, Aunty checked on your dad and had someone tend to his wounds. He spoke in fits and starts, forcing the words out, obviously in pain. Aunty listened carefully and didn’t interrupt him.
This is what I learned:
A mob of raiders were heading our way, fifty or sixty of them.
They were a three-day hike to the north.
They meant business.
They were armed and had some kind of war machine.
Your dad had been their slave, but had somehow escaped.
There were more details to his story, but they didn’t really matter. The bones of it were frightening enough.
When your dad had finished talking, Aunty let him be and gathered the rest of the elders, leading them to what we laughingly called the town hall. She let me stay. She knew I’d kick up a fuss if they tried to get rid of me.
I hung back, keeping my eyes and ears open.
They talked about fighting and fleeing. As young as I was, and as much as I loved home, I
knew we couldn’t defend ourselves. There were barely thirty of us left, and that included the kids and youngsters – everyone else had fled when the rain stopped falling.
But we couldn’t run either. Where would we go?
Eventually, Aunty and the elders settled on a plan – they would send out runners to ask for help fighting off the raiders. We weren’t alone back then. There we people we traded with if we could, or just gave water to if they needed it.
I scoffed at the idea of help. I objected, loudly. I told them they were stupid for relying on the hope that others would help.
Why would they?
Life was hard enough as it was.
But to the elders I was just a kid, and they completely ignored me.
The rest of that day was a buzz of activity that went through the night. First off, Aunty chose the fittest half-dozen of us to get the word out. She told them where to go and what to do, and then passed each of them a rough haversack crammed with a few days worth of water and food.
Lastly, she gave each of them a relic of the old world that she called a ‘flare gun.’
“Their elders will know what to do,” she told the runners.
None of them spoke, the importance of their task sitting heavily on their shoulders.
I watched silently as they took off into the night. Each one headed in a different direction, some to the mud-folk from the swamps engulfing the drowned city down south, some to the nomadic tinkers who gleaned scraps from the ruins, some to those hold-outs and die-hards who refused to leave their towns, some to the First Country caravans winding their way through the desolation, and some to those recluses and loners hunkered down in the hills.
As soon as they had gone, the other elders called us together and set us to work. Half of us turned our minds to defending ourselves if we had to. The rest started preparing to evacuate.
We fortified the gate.
We built barricades out of car carcasses and wrecked furniture.
We set traps and snares.
We emptied out meager armoury and practised-practised-practised.
The best of us with a bow and arrow set up sniper nests in the trees ringing the town.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did your dad. He pitched in, pushing himself as hard as anyone else, doing whatever was asked of him. That surprised me, considering his injuries and the fact that he was a stranger.
At one point we found ourselves working side-by-side. I’m glad for that, and always will be, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
I collapsed in the middle of the next day, absolutely exhausted. By the time I awoke, the sun was setting and we were as ready as we could be.
I decided to join my big brother while we waited. I asked your dad if he wanted to tag along, but he declined – he always hated heights.
And so I was all alone as I carefully climbed the tower clinging to the rim of the volcano.
Once at the top, I dropped my supply of fresh water, hugged my brother tight and did my best not to look down. You’ve been there. You know how high it is.
He was pleased to see me, but as soon as we’d broken apart he scooped up the town’s sole set of binoculars and resumed his vigil.
We took turns scanning the dark horizon, looking to the north.
All we saw were shadows and gloom.
We saw the first sign of the raiders just after dawn – a thick plume of dust to the north, thrown up by their march.
“How long do you reckon it’ll take them to get here?” I asked my brother.
“They’ll probably be here by dark. You’d better tell Aunty.”
I descended the tower, hurried into town and told Aunty what was what. She gathered us together and filled us in.
After that, all we could do was wait.
That was the worst part.
Night fell, after an anxious day. We took our positions. We readied our weapons. And then the brilliant blossom of a flare filled the sky to the south.
Help was on its way, our friends and neighbours were coming, all we had to do was hold off the raiders until they arrived.
I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt.
Moments later, another flare went off, this time to the west. And then another and another and another, more and more of them, including one from the north, behind the raiders.
And then one of our runners approached the gates.
Before he fell to the ground in exhaustion, he gave Aunty a thumbs-up.
Our law doesn’t just apply to us, but to everyone else out there in the wasteland. Well, everyone else that’s still good.
Help when you can.
(Originally published in Stories of Hope, February 2020)