They told me later that I had fainted. They said that the combination of the unseasonal heat and my physical state made me pass out. I asked them about the hunters and they all tried to look surprised.
“Yes,” I told them. “The ones in the forest.”
Smiles came upon them like frost on early morning grass.
“You must have been delirious. It’s not surprising. You looked like you hadn’t eaten for days.”
I was in a bed, with pillows and sheets and a blanket. And, it smelt wonderful.
“You need your rest now. First, however, you need to drink this.”
From the table at the side of the bed, she took a large cup. Already its aromas filled the air; rosemary, apple and lilac.
“You’ll need to sit upright.”
I was out of my sleep now and looking at the speaker. It was an old woman with soft creases in her face. Her hair was full and cut to the shoulders. Her smile was no longer chilled; it was warm and caring. Carrying the cup, I noticed her hands. These were strong and lean, the sinews and veins displaying the travails she had undertaken. She moved closer to me and there was a warm sweetness about her scent that made me feel safe. I did as I was told. I sat up with the old woman placing the pillows behind me. My body ached in a way that it had never done so before and a grimace gave this away.
“You have been out in the wilds haven’t you?”
If by that she meant that I had been living free, then she was right.
“We get a lot of girls coming in,” she continued. “Not as many as before, but still a number.” Her kind face looked at me questioningly. “But there is something about you that is different. You have been in the Margins haven’t you?”
I didn’t know what she meant by the Margins.
“The place where the water rules.”
Now I knew. Yes, I had been there. That was the place of my earliest memory. My earliest…But when I tried to pull it back from the darkness that sat at the back of my head, it would not move. My eyes turned in on themselves to see the picture that I was trying to create. None came. I looked at the old woman again and she smiled as if knowing my troubles.
“We all have our stories, even if they don’t want to tell themselves.”
“Where am I?”
My question was as weak as was my voice.
I could run past this ancient thing if she tried to make a wrong move. I could push her down and outpace her. I flexed my upper leg muscles for confirmation but only got pain.
“You are not ready yet, child. The comfort of the bed has reminded you of your wounds.”
“Yes, you have some deep slashes on your right arm and upper back. They are healing now.”
My hand automatically searched the places she had indicated and the proof of her statement became apparent. Bandages were wrapped around me. Even the slightest touch brought an etching of pain.
“It will hurt for a number of days but then the healing will begin. We have taken the liberty of putting stitches into your wounds and have washed them down with medicines. You will be fine soon.”
All this time, I sat without a word. So many words had been spoken to me in such a short time that I felt dizzy. It was as if I had been eating from a huge kill; eaten until I felt sick. She noticed and placed the cup to my lips.
I did as I was bidden and did not notice when my remaining energy ebbed away.
I knew that I had slept, long hours, for I woke with the touch of the tomb about be. My wounds were tight and when I moved they cried out; I cried out. My voice must have carried in the stillness of the grey hours because I heard footsteps, quietly trodden ones, as if the owner did not wish to alert anyone of their movements.
I sat upright, ignoring the pain, and slipped from my bed. I had spent too long in the wild lands to ignore the lessons I had learnt. Although injured, I could still glide along the floor without bothering it. In moments, I was concealed behind the door awaiting my visitor.
The tiny creaks ceased and I waited. The door knob began to turn, ever so slowly. Within a breath, the wooden divide was easing open… a fraction at a time. I watched as a hand appeared and waited for the rest of the intruder to venture in. I did not have to wait long for in a moment my visitor was there.
The vague light could not hide the form as it moved carefully to the bedside. Neither could it hide the language of surprise when it discovered that nobody now occupied the bed. There was still something of the dreams about me as I crept up behind it. The person in my room was familiar in the way that faces from the far past might be.
“What do you want,” I asked knowing that my intention was to shock.
She turned and, even though the murky light encased her, I knew it was the girl who sang. She did not shake or tremble.
“You came from the forests?” She asked me simply.
“So you know what lies beyond the Garden? You know of the other world?”
I did know of the other world. I nodded.
Her voice betrayed her enthusiasm. He words fell out over her tongue.
“Outside…over the trees… hunters and seas.”
“I have never seen any seas but I have seen much water.”
“So, you have seen the margins, they say that Mother made the trip from there a long time ago. She came with others to escape. They travelled through the flood lands and through the forests where beast walk on two legs. Where creatures feast off each other. You came the same way?”
Yes, I had come the same way. I had travelled through the margins where the waters moved and washed the life from the world. I had stood atop of inclines and watched as the rolling waves arrived and ravaged the land. Nothing was spared. Houses, trees, people that stood in their path were simply swept up and carried off. It was as if the world was being cleansed.
We were still in those hours before waking, ghosts exchanging pleasantries. I was accustomed to the gloom and my eyes found it relatively easy to discern my visitor’s features.
“We need a light,” she spoke quietly.
Moving to the bedside table, the girl gently tapped out the existence of an oil lamp. In her pockets she pushed her hands and one returned triumphantly with a small box. I watched as she adjusted something and then took a small stick from the box and lit a taper at the top of the lamp. Within an instant, there was a glow that began to occupy the room.
“What was that?” I asked, still marvelling at the miracle.
She saw that my eyes were on the stick that she had shaken out.
“This? It’s a match. Mother knew them from the ancient days. We still find some every now and again; still find some that are dry.”
The match, that tiny stick, was magical. I moved towards her proffering a hand. She saw it and placed the object in my palm. There was still the slightest of warmth from where the fire had burnt. I lifted it to my nostrils and smelt. The aroma was that of the fiercest flames. It was pungent with its own sense and, even spent, clung to my nose and throat.
“What is it?”
“Something called sulphur,” she smiled. “It can catch fire at a touch, but only when it is dry.”
In all of my travels, I had never seen sulphur before. Once I heard explosions in the forest, loud cracks like the spitting of small thunders, and I had gone to them. I remembered it now. I had followed the sharp bangs against my better judgement and had found some newly trodden paths that told me that something was being hunted. Both hunters and prey walked on two legs. In the air there hung the vaguest of scents, something new and alien. That smell was similar to the one I had just tasted.
“You were the singer,” I said.
“And you were the one who saved us,” she responded. “You saved us from the hunters.”
At once, the scene crystallised for me. I was in the last of the trees. Singing, and then the beautiful girls. The feet in the leaves behind me. Me running, feet running after me. The old woman. The urgent feet catching me.
“Mother said that if you had not been there, we would have been taken.”
“But the old woman, she was there.”
“Yes, but only later.”
A movement behind me.
“You two are awake early,” the voice of Mother spoke.
I turned and saw her standing in the frame of the open door. Those eyes caught me, like the clear light from the moon emerging from behind a cloud, and I stared at her.
“It is good that you have both met. This, my child, is Ruth. She is the bravest of my girls,” the woman paused before continuing. “Do you think brave is the right word, Ruth?”
The girl dropped her eyes.
“Perhaps, stupid is better.”
“No, my child, brave is closer; foolhardy is closer still.” The old woman looked at me once more. “You, young lady, are most certainly brave. You risked your life for these others whom you do not know.” Her eyes studied me. “You have been in the wilderness for a long time, haven’t you?”
I did not know what she meant by wilderness because, for me, it was just the world.
“Have you been with others?”
I thought about the others. There had been a few. There was the woman and baby who I came across in the wetlands. They had been sheltering in an old stone home. The woman did not speak. She was scared of me when I first arrived, all huddled in a corner. It took some time for me to realise that she was hiding a bundle that was alive.
Reassuring her, I moved towards them and saw the child. I had never seen a human so very young before.
The woman was at the edge of her battles and her eyes pleaded with me in that soft twilight of cares. Not my baby, they said. Her face was thin, emaciated from whatever journey she had been on. The child was silent; no whimpers that could have given itself away. Both were starving.
“I’ll get you something to eat,” I assured her.
In my bag, I had the last of a rabbit I had snared two days before. It was wrapped in its own skin. I gave it to her and she slowly accepted.
I realised that I had no water as I had not planned on having visitors. Close to where I was, I had discovered a stream. I had tried the water the night before and, although it had a slight metallic taste, I believed it to be good. My rule of thumb was whether or not it was running and from where it originated. Water could kill better than any hunter.
I made what I thought were comforting words that were meant to assure the mother that I would return. I raised my hands to my mouth, my fingers holding onto that the hide that the was the water carrier I kept slung around my neck. “Water,” I said. “Drink,” and “fetch”. Her eyes only settled upon me rather than my words or actions and I realised that nothing had been understood. On my return, which was in no time at all, I discovered the building to be empty.
She had gone, baby and all, into the wilderness again. Her death was as assured as the death of her child. Somewhere on those vast plains of hopelessness, she would stumble and fall. Somewhere their fight for life would be extinguished and there was nothing to stop it from happening.
I sat down that night and lit a small fire. I was within the confines of the dilapidated house, its walls enough to hide the fragile flames that I used to cook the small ground bird I had trapped. They did nothing for the cold that had now settled within me and so I slept and dreamt dreams I was to forget in the following morning.
“Have you been with others,” the old woman asked again.
“No,” I answered flatly. “There were no others.”