From The Story of Eve
The shadows stood tall and long in the shining of the moon. The forest waited with trees that could have been beasts and Ruth sucked in her breath. She tried to calm herself.
She had been running for more than two hours and she had still not lost them. ‘Them’ were the watchers, the guardians of the gardens, the ones who kept everyone safe. But, there was a flip side to safety. Now Ruth realised that safety meant another word too. For all of their ‘freedom’ they were trapped. Nothing came in and nothing left without permission. The watchers made sure of that.
Some creature, a bird, hooted in a tree nearby and made her jump. Jump, jumpity, jump, she just stopped herself from letting out a scream. The bird, for that must have been what it was, hooted once more and then fell silent. Ruth pushed herself nearer to the tree trunk and tried to become part of it. The moon shone down into an arena that now appeared more spiritual, and ominous. She dared not breathe for fear of giving away her scent.
Some girls had it that monsters roamed these woods. After the fall of the big citadels, after the fall of man, the monsters arose from the deep and gained feet and then legs. They walked as men but kept their scales. Their stink was of the waters, but their instincts were of men.
Some said that these damned creatures were the souls of those who had perished in the great floods. They were doomed beings whose only respite was to feed off the living, the girls of the garden. Ruth had heard these tales and had been thrilled by them.
Like her best friend, Ruth was a Tom-Girl. The others joked about them, mocked their stride and openly giggled at their unadorned faces. Ruth and Evie were throw-backs, remnants of another age, Tom-Girls, the oddly mixed chemistry of genes that was not informed by the current age.
She stood silently against the trunk of a large tree and hoped that its shadow might embrace her. For a span of time that she could not measure, she stood there. She was waiting and whatever was chasing her was waiting too.
Keep still, she thought to herself. But it was hard to keep still when there was something that followed, something with her blood in its nostrils.
There was a noise. It was high up in the trees and out of the danger that was on the ground. She knew what it had registered and an instinct in her, long ignored, told her that this was the time to move. Her eyes scouted the shadows searching for the best path. If she kept low, scuttled along silently, she may evade detection. If was a very short word but a very long shot. Nevertheless, if was the only chance she had left.
Her steps were soft. She had gained these through her nocturnal outings with Evie. Evie was the girl from the margins, the water-lands beyond the great forest. She had not meant to leave her alone back there, but it was the only thing that she could do. If the Watchers believed that Evie knew what she had discovered, then she too would have been in danger.
Instead, Ruth had kissed her softly on the forehead as she lay sleeping. She had brushed away her hair, as a mother would have done to her child, and had given her unspoken and everlasting love. Then she disappeared.
Trust was something Mother had instilled in the Garden.
“We trust each other and that trust is our strength.”
They still used that motto long after Mother had gone. Nobody, nobody with a capital N ever asked after Mother. The Watchers ensured that the people of the Garden continued as if nothing had happened. Mother was still with them, watching over them, guiding them. The Watchers ensured that all was well.
Ruth was a younger girl at that time and did not question that which she was told. She was slightly wild but not rebellious. In school, her teachers understood her playfulness and allowed it to be. They even accepted her Tomboy qualities, encouraged them as an unplanned for strand of divergence. That was when the Garden thought that variety was the spice of their existence. That was when Mother was still with them.
The change came suddenly. Rumours settled like unwanted pests on the tongues of the inhabitants and as one word led to another, one supposition gave rise to hundreds more. People liked to talk.
“Mother has been seen wondering in the far woods.”
“She has been in communication with the old world.”
“She is trying to take back all that once was hers.”
“Mother is losing it.”
Sister Agnes was the second in the Garden. She had come with Mother across the great wastes and, at first, they had been inseparable. Mother, without Sister, was an equation that didn’t make sense.
If Mother was wise and caring, Sister was pragmatic and disciplined. Their partnership worked. Mother was the voice of reason, the words of reassurance, the speeches of inspiration. Some said that it was the strength of her oratory, the vision of her beliefs, the justness of her convictions that got everyone through those first few years. A lesser number thought that it was Sister Agnes with her understanding of the wild grasses and fruits. It was her after all who was able to locate the natural foodstuffs that could be gathered and it was her who knew how to mill grain, how to make bread and how to sew warm fabrics together for those cold first winters. If Mother’s words raised the hopes of the inhabitants, Sister’s actions kept them fed and warm.
For decades this pair of women ensured that their flock not only survived but grew.
The Garden became a sanctuary for all those girls who managed to cross the vast tracks of waterlands. Sometimes in pairs, at others in small groups, on occasions individually, girls arrived at the gardens, bedraggled and bereft. Their stories were told to gasps of amazement, the ringing of hands and the shaking of heads. These were girls who had evaded the reapers; those body stealers who understood the value of a female form.
A sharp movement to her left brought Ruth to a standstill. She was once more in the shadow of a tree and was close enough to its trunk to be mistaken for a part of it. She froze and pulled in the extremities of her body whilst tying up the exaggerations of her fear. Movements stopped, breathing stopped and the world almost stopped. She had gone within herself and was now peering out unable to move.
The thing that was moving through the woods began again. Its walk was a careful tread, its tread enquiring, its search precise. Ruth prayed to whatever was out there but nothing came back. Instead, the footsteps continued and, thankfully, they moved past her. Still, she waited…and counted.
After reaching four hundred, her mind set itself to move. There was no sound now but for a bird in the distance that had probably been disturbed by the unwanted nocturnal traveller. Its call was anxious and then it was no more.
Ruth would turn away from the direction in which the feet moved. She would double back and find another route through the forest. With luck she would find her way out into the open beyond the trees and then with more fortune she would make her way to Mother and to safety.
Now was the time to act. And she turned back into the shadows from which she had come. As she did so, another thing moved and blocked her path. She stopped abruptly; too sudden for fear to have taken root. Another set of options raced through her mind, but these fell through the trap door of the moment.
Her eyes widened as her heart seemed to stop.
“You,” she uttered. “It was you all along.”