On that fourth day, Mother and I found ourselves seated at one of the long benches in the underground. A number of Laura’s group were off scouting outside. Some ripple of information had worked its way amongst them and they had organised themselves into small scouting parties. Maddie, the little girl who had twice come to my attention, was foremost amongst the scouts. Whilst the others organised, she was off. One moment she was there and the next she was not. I had brought this to the attention of Laura and she just smiled and said that that was how Maddie worked. She may have been the youngest of the scouts but she was the best.
They had been gone for some time before Mother began to talk to me about the things of the past. Firstly, she spoke about tea. She told me that tea was something that originally came from a place called China. China was on the other side of the world and for a very long time they had a civilization that would have been the envy of the world if the world had known about it.
“They built a huge wall that went on for thousands of miles,” she explained.
“Was that to keep the floods out?”
“No, it was built to keep the foreigners out and the natives in. China was very possessive about the things that it had.”
“what did it have?”
“For one thing it had some of the finest cloth in the world. The cloth was called silk and it was so soft that it was believed to have been woven by the gods. In reality, the material came from a worm”
“A worm could make clothing?”
“No, the worm could spin strands of silk, threads that could be collected together and made into the most luxuriant material the world had ever seen. Has ever seen, should I say. It was so highly prized that merchants would risk their lives sneaking into the forbidden kingdom in order to steal the secret. If foreigners did such a thing they could expect little mercy. At the very best, they could expect to be fired from cannon back over the Great Wall. Such was their desire for isolation.”
“And what else did they make?”
“The Chinese made gunpowder, a highly explosive substance.”
“Explosive, yes. Have you ever seen the lightning hitting a tree during a storm? It’s the light that breaks the sky. The one that is followed by the roar that rumbles and cracks.”
I had seen the lightning. It was the fire from above. Mostly I had seen this in the Margins during storms. I had heard the roar of the ‘thunder’ and had seen what these could do. If anything was to get trapped beneath the fire, it would been burnt up immediately. Many trees had been burnt down this way, but more had been spared by the damp world around them.
“Explosions are like the lightning and the thunder combined. Gunpowder was a substance that had the power to cause fear and destruction. At first they used rockets and then they built cannon into which they placed balls that could be fired long distances before reaching their targets. Thos people who were not from China wanted so much to hold the fire of the gods but China kept it out of reach for a long time. And then we had tea. Tea is just a plant whose leaves could be harvested, dried and mixed with boiling water. Like gunpowder, it was seen to be a gift from the gods, ambrosia the foods that their deities would consume. Tea was refreshing, it was sterile, and much of it had medicinal qualities. When i was a girl, tea was the drink that everybody enjoyed and it was enjoyed throughout each and every day, usually with milk.”
“Milk is the liquid that mother produce for their young when they are first born. It sustains them until they can eat ordinary food. For humans, back then, milk was taken from the cattle they kept, the animals they reared that would support them though the winter months.”
There were now so many questions flying around inside and in front of me that I was unsure of which to seize upon and ask.
“So they stole the milk from other animals? It was not theirs to take.”
Mankind was like that. It believed that it could take anything that it wanted. It stole the freedom of animals and turned them into cattle, walking meat that was kept in fields or in cages. They stole the eggs from the chickens they kept. And then they stole the very chance of their own survival by not paying attention to the warnings they were given. Once, humans travelled to the moon, they sent vessels into the deepest reaches of the sky and brought back knowledge that only time had previously known about. Then, their world collapsed and what was left was pushed far apart, isolated and confused. And this is what we have left, an underground station leading nowhere and tea that burns a young girl’s mouth.”
For the first time I had known her, I could hear sadness and resignation in her voice. I put my head down because I didn’t wish to see her like this. She was mourning for a world that had killed itself, a world that had been so great and full of promise.
The scouting parties began to return sometime later and it became evident that something was wrong.