Bad dreams; that was all they were.
I had woken in the middle of the night with the wind rattling at the window panes. They shuddered beneath every new onslaught and insisted upon my waking. I woke, staggering from a nightmare quickly fading.
As with most dreams, regardless of how real they appeared, the vestiges of their existence fell away like leaves from a tree in the first blast of autumn. No matter how hard I tried, nothing was coming back.
I sat upright in bed, a slight sheen of sweat lay upon my forehead. My breathing was still heavy and my pulse continued to race. Whatever I had been running from in my sleep, my physical form still believed it to be real.
Ruth’s bed was empty. She had been gone for three days now. I hoped, no I prayed, that she would return. She would never leave me like this.
The Watchers said that she may have become lost in the great woods. They said that she may have even fallen prey to the creatures that roamed it. That was Ruth, they said, a Tomboy. I did not believe them.
Ruth and I had been friends since as long as I could remember. She was the first one to come to me when I entered the Garden. I was one of the blow-ins, a child from the margins who just happened to wash up in the Garden.
Down the years, there had been a number of us; young girls without names or families, youngsters who had no past and only a sliver of hope for the future. Left on our own, we would have surely died or have fallen prey to the creatures that walked like men through the flooded zone or the woods.
I was one of those lucky ones who just happened to find the safe place. The Watchers were welcoming and I was relieved.
“So, what is your name?”
It was an easy question that I found impossible to answer.
“Did you get lost from your mother?”
Another easy one. I shrugged.
“Who was with you?”
I wanted to answer but I couldn’t. It wasn’t as if I was trying to hide anything, it was just simply that I don’t know anything.
If they’d asked me what my last meal was, I would have been stumped. I did not, did not, know.
The old woman was kind to me. Mother, they all called her. She called me Eve and that brought a smile to her face. The Garden needs an Eve, she whispered and her words were like a breeze running through the tops of grass at sunset.
She was an old woman, much older than anyone I had ever set eyes on before but she was not scary. I had come across some, much younger females, who had been scared by the harshness of the world near to the margins. Their skin had creased and cracked, their teeth had blackened and so had their hopes. These women were best avoided. They spoke in tongues that could not be comprehended and sacrificed small creatures to their fires and pots.
I had stopped at one house once upon a time and began searching for food. The hag who was living there had gone off for some time so I thought that I would be safe. The house was a hovel and it reeked of all things unsavoury. There was food but nothing that could tempt me to taste it. There are many things that a girl should never touch and bowls of maggots are high upon the list. Well, of the all the things that ought not to be eaten, this woman had the lot.
Eels squirmed around in a tin bath on the kitchen floor, a row of puppies hung from the space at the side of the pantry. My heart fell at this. There were mice and rats and jars of huge earthworms. Then there was the fungus, violently bright and pungently smelling. But worse that all of this was the box of remains. I couldn’t be fully certain but human would have been my guess. That was when I turned to go and you’ve guessed it, yes, that was when she returned.
The desolation of the margins do things to individuals. Some become hermits, fleeting creatures who fold into the landscape, others go wild and lose their ability to function as a human being. Others turn. That’s the word, they turn like milk, soured, and change form. This hag, this harpy, she had changed. Her grey hair hung down in matted waterfalls. Her clothes stunk. Her teeth were either yellow or black or non-existent. Her eyes, well her eyes had long since stopped being human. If they were the gateways to her soul then the thing at her core was rancid.
A wailing scream issued from her as she ran across the kitchen towards me. She had on a coat of sorts, a long heavy thing that made her appear bigger than she probably was. As she ran towards me, I caught a glimpse of something sharp being held overhead and I instinctively ducked and rolled. My evasion had only temporarily been bought as she spun around at speed and resumed her attack. I realised now why her trophy collection was so vast.
I was intent on making the open door. Once outside I knew that I could make the sprint for freedom. Even back then, my speed was able to get me out of many a dire situation. But, just as I was about to bolt into the daylight, there was the dog.
I hadn’t seen many dogs before. Most of them had vanished from the homes of men. The ones that I had seen were now pack animals, dangerous groups that were best avoided at all costs. The packs were bad enough but this dog, this singular monster of a thing, went quite a stretch beyond that. It was huge.
I had nowhere to go. If I ran past the dog, there was no doubt that it would get me. The old woman was breathing down my neck, quite literally as I could smell the stench of her fetid mouth. My only choice seemed to be who I wanted least to be eaten by. Another choice was to double back and use the hag as a temporary shield. In the great scheme of things, my death there would not make a ripple.
I turned around sharply, using the trick of falling to the floor to evade the lethal swipe of her blade, and all the while darting out of the reach of those vicious teeth of the canine beast behind me.
Sure enough, the blade came slicing down just above my head. I could feel its passage barely clearing my scalp. The dog shot forward, its mouth missing my left arm but leaving a trail of noxious spittle upon it. Fortunately for me, the dog’s size meant that it was slow, much slower that the pack dogs I had encountered.
I darted back towards the old witch and she did her best to slice me with her carving knife. She was not well versed in slicing able humans so I ducked and avoided her once more.
Then the beast was on my back, its hot breath and saliva dripping upon me, but I managed to slide low to the right across her filthy floor. The grease and grime actually aided me as I slid much faster and further than I could have expected.
Once past the hag, I was aware that the dog had collided with its owner. It must have had it jaws open and ready to bite because she gave out one hell of a hellish scream. I shook deep within myself and prayed that I would never have to hear that cry as one of victory.
“You little bastard,” she yelled before the dog answered. It gave out a yelp of pain and indignation that could not be ignored. I was trapped in the back of the room, my pursuers blocking the door; I was a gonner.
When I turned to face my assailants, I was met with a sight of amazing deliverance. The witch was falling backwards, slashing her knife this way and that, huge arcs of potential death, but the dog was somehow impervious to them. The thing was bearing down on her, blood dripping from its head and snout, its teeth though were equal to the task.
I watched for only a few moments allowing myself the time to weigh up the gap between them and the door opening. The world outside, although dark and foreboding, was far more preferable to the fetid environment of the witch’s hovel. I raced and threw myself past the duelling pair, only vaguely noticing the huge jaws about to fall upon the woman’s neck.
This is an extract from a novel for younger adults by myself.