By Ian Fraser.
"A soft wind blew and rustled the leaves on the trees.
'Heh,' said Pigman. 'Isn't this a genuine made-in America love story, huh?'
'What's America?' I said.”
A short novella.
Once upon a time, Mom told me that the trail that ran past our house used to be filled with cars. The only vehicles I’d ever seen were the army trucks that brought prisoners to the camp nearby.
In the broom cupboard there was a collection of old magazines with pictures, and from what I could understand, cars were shiny and crazy small in comparison to the trucks. Mom would often lock me in the cupboard when I was young: she called it baby-sitting, and it happened whenever she was busy with the soldiers who came to visit. I must have read almost all of the magazines by the time Mom got her face cut.
In the magazines, the people’s teeth look unused and white as whitewash. There must have been a lot of spare food for everyone back then, because the fat didn’t just hang off their arms and bellies, it puffed them up and made their faces look like plates.
I remember asking Mom about the people from back then. We were on the porch, keeping an eye on the fence. I had my bow and arrow. At the time we’d just come through a tough patch. Nothing had been showing up in the traps, and it was too cold for the rats from the camp to be out and about yet.
“The people in the magazines,” I said. “Was everyone fat like that?”
“Guess they were. Don’t know.”
“Must have looked like those cats.”
Mom gave me one of her looks and I knew to shut up. I added it to the things to ask Pigman.
A couple of winters ago, we’d had an infestation of cats. Suddenly they’d been everywhere. Mom and me ate real well for the week or two it took to trap and kill them all. The cat problem taught me a lot about traps, and cooking, and seasoning.
Where we stayed, the countryside was mostly quiet, although you could hear the approaching roar of the army trucks from a mile off. They usually drove by at night, and sometimes, you could catch the sound of muffled shouts and screaming.
The guards at the camp used to bring Mom stuff. The men would come round at dusk, and once they were finished and had left, we’d go through the treats. I recall trying a hard brown thing called “chok-lut”. I didn’t much care for it. Most often, the soldiers would bring flat silver boxes. Inside them there’d be bright-colored food in shallow compartments that tasted different to anything we could make.
After Mom got her face cut, the soldiers stopped coming. I didn’t mind. It meant that Mom used me more than before. Over time, her wound healed. I thought that she looked kind of cute, even though it was a big scar and the side of her mouth didn’t work so well.
That night, the sex with Mom was good, and for once, I’d been in the mood for it. As usual, afterwards, I went into the forest and checked my traps. Suddenly, I heard the noise of a truck approaching, and stayed in the bushes at the side of the road. I was curious, as I’d never been this close before. Two dazzling bright lights came into view and grew larger. The truck rumbled past. It seemed tall, and the back part of it was all enclosed, except for narrow, wire-covered windows. Thirty feet down the trail, the vehicle pulled to the side of the road and its engine cut out.
I heard muffled shouts and figured I’d go nearer. Beneath the wire fencing over the windows, I could see fingers sticking through the holes.
At the front of the truck, a door opened and a big soldier peered down at me.
“Whoa!” he said. “Where did you come from?”
I told him and asked if they were looking for the camp. He said yeah, they were. I explained how they were just a mile short, and that they should look out for the old ‘Motel’ sign on the right, and just a little ways after that, they’d see the dirt road. He thanked me for the directions.
The truck started up again. I watched the red lights on the back getting smaller like they were the eyes of some animal being dragged off.
For a while the night seemed darker than usual as I stood on the road and listened to that engine get further away.
It was a few days after that when I got the news.
Pigman had made me stinky, and I’d washed at a stream before I came back to the house. Mom was in the kitchen chopping cabbage.
“How old are you now?” she asked out of the blue. I shrugged. “Thirteen, huh?” she said back at me, real thoughtful.
“Why?” I asked.
I wanted to leap up and down when she told me we were almost out of spice, and that we were gonna need a new load from the city to see us through.
This time there’d be no lying in the closet with the smell of my own dirt.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” said Mom.
The trip would take two days each way. After supper, I sat with her and helped make sure all the bags were in good repair. There shouldn’t be trouble along the way but just in case, we’d have the knives. We went into the cellar and filled bags with cabbages and potatoes, and checked how much we could carry. The honeycombs went into their own bag so they wouldn’t get squished. I filled my quiver with arrows and put spare twine aside for the bow.
It was tough getting to sleep. I wondered what the city was like. The pictures in the magazines showed high structures that must have taken years to make. Tallest things I’d ever seen were the watch towers at the camp. The camp towers loomed above the prisoners like the buildings did behind the fat people in the old magazine pictures.
“The good old 395,” said Mom as we got through the last of the bushes and came out onto a slope. Below us was grass-covered black road, much bigger than I’d expected. In either direction, the flat grassy path curved into view through the forest. It had begun to rain.
Mom looked at me. “Roads get bigger than this, you know.”
“Yeah?” I said, as we went down the slope.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Much bigger. Don’t forget to keep an eye out.”
I didn’t need to ask what for. I felt just as twitchy since we came out of the brush and into the open. We kept up a good pace, but there were too many places where someone could be watching.
I had noticed that every so often, a narrow trail led off and disappeared from view beneath the overhanging branches and into the trees. I asked about them. Mom thought for a bit. She called them “off-ramps”.
That night it was cold but we had cabbage and bread. I could have made a fire but everything was wet, and besides, it was too dangerous. Fire kept you warm but it also told anyone watching that you were there. We cuddled up together and Mom wanted some, so we did it and then went to sleep.
In the morning it had started raining again as we set off. The rain kept up and after a few hours we were knee-high in the rising water.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Mom. “We’re taking an off-ramp in a couple of miles.”
Just as we turned off the main road, the rain stopped. We trudged along the off-ramp and watched out for snakes overhead in the trees. A few times we had to crawl to get past the tangled branches, but eventually, the forest seemed to pull back a little and we were able to walk normally.
I wanted to creep along real silent but I knew that was no way to behave in a forest. Not if you didn’t want to get bit. Animals and snakes aren’t stupid. If you made enough noise they kept out of your path. But at the same time, you didn’t want to make so much sound that someone looking to do you harm could hear you coming.
I started seeing stuff in the forest, a little way back from the trail. They had to be old houses, covered in creepers and grass. The buildings looked like low hills, some flatter than others. The bird noises were loud. If this area wasn’t so far from home, I would have loved to come back here alone and explore, see what I could find.
I had never realized there had been so many people.
It was one thing to look at fading old pictures of mobs, but here we were, actually walking past their homes. I wasn’t scared, just real curious. From living close to the camp, I’d seen big groups of people before. Like the one time I left Pigman’s hut, and the prisoners were lined up on the other side of the fence, skinny-pale and naked. They were so unexpectedly close I had to drop and crawl to avoid being seen by the soldiers.
We’d been following the trail for hours. Gradually the forest had begun thinning out and we could see the low hills and collapsed walls on either side of us.
A sharp scent made me sneeze. “What’s that?” I said.
My first thought was that it smelt like pepper. There was the smell of spice, but that was just one of a hundred different scents: rotting food, sweat, dung, urine, dust, and smoke, as well as strange smells that I couldn’t place – like fruit-that-wasn’t-fruit. As we walked on, I noticed that I needed to blink more, as if there were invisible things in the air brushing against my eyes.
Through a haze of grey smoke I saw tall shapes in the distance. Buildings! One or two of them seemed to rise hundreds of feet into the air.
“That’s the city?”
“That’s the edge of it,” said Mom.
We entered a wasteland of piled-up stuff. I’d never seen so much garbage before. On either side, the piles towered like sloping hills and the garbage rippled with rats. I wanted to stop and explore. I could see a hundred different interesting things: metal scrap, pieces of wood, plastic, and old papers.
I saw that people were living there. There were small huts and tents on the garbage slopes. As I peered upward, I saw ragged kids and people on all fours, scrabbling through the garbage and doing pretty much what I would have liked to be doing.
Ahead of us, as we drew nearer, the dark hulking shapes of buildings rose higher and higher through the murk. The structures looked torn, like trees hit by lightning. Most of their upper parts had crumbled, leaving tall spires.
I realized that what seemed like layers of horizontal stripes in the broken buildings were actually different floors. Each level was open to the air and there was constant movement of people along its length.
“They’re living up there!” I said. Mom looked from me to the buildings.
“Of course,” she said and just went on walking
We stepped onto a road and paused. A group of soldiers passed, carrying rifles. There were more people than I’d ever seen before.
We got closer to the crowds. I gripped Mom’s arm.
“Let go!” she said, and pulled her hand free. I was a little bit scared. There was too much going on. I didn’t know where to look. Some of the people wore furs and skins like we did, but most had shirts or robe-like things.
People sat on the sides of the street, holding their hands palm upward to those passing by. For a moment, I lost sight of Mom in the crowds. I panicked. All these strangers…
She grabbed me by the hand.
“Boy!” she said. “Guess I’m gonna have to hold on to you.”
The market was an open patch of ground between the buildings. There were long rows of people beside things for sale, set out on the ground. For a while, Mom and I went up and down the rows, looking at everything. Barrels of pickled things, flat boxes of salted fish, dried meats, spices, fabric and cloth, pots, candles and more.
Eventually, Mom got tired of doing what she called ‘research’ and we found an open space at the end of a row. We put the bags down and sat and watched the crowds. A robed man, surrounded by men with whips, came by and told Mom what it would cost to sell things at the market. She asked him if there was something maybe she could do. The man squinted at her and told her no. Mom sighed and gave him one of her coins.
Alongside us was a merchant selling meat. While Mom fussed with the bags, I eyed the row of heads and the cuts of meat and wondered what some of the animals were. I didn’t ask Mom; she was too busy laying out the potatoes and cabbage. The vegetables attracted people straight away, and when the honey combs came out, we got ourselves a crowd.
Mom handled the customers real well, and spoke like I never had heard her talk before – sort of smooth and good humored, no matter what anyone said. A lot of the honey was sold fast. The meat seller next to us bought some. As he paid for it and slipped it into his pocket, he laughed for no good reason that I could see.
Mom had always told me that city folk were kind of crazy.
There was a lull in the flow of customers and a noise got my attention. People were gathered a little way off. I asked Mom if I could go see. She squinted at where the crowd stood, and then told me okay, just that I shouldn’t talk to anyone, and to come straight back when I was done.
I heard yelping and growling as I got nearer. The people were standing around the edge of a pit. I squeezed through so I could see better. The fight was between a big yellow dog and a smaller black and white one. Both animals were ripped up and bleeding: the black and white had a gash along its back leg and a piece of muscle flopped as it moved. Foam dripped from its jaws and it shivered and swayed like it was on shaky ground. This didn’t seem to slow it down any. The dogs closed on each other again and they spun growling and biting.
Around me, the crowd roared as the black and white one got its teeth into the other’s throat. There was a long squirt of blood. The yellow dog’s legs stiffened and it fell over and shook as it died. The people around me cursed and laughed.
“Always bet on the rabid one,” someone said.
The black and white dog growled and bared its fangs. It snapped at the air and its jaws clicked. The dog whined and ran in a circle. Around the wire fence which surrounded the pit, the crowd relaxed and chatted. A man holding a long pole with a corded loop on its end, reached into the pit, caught the dog and dragged it off to the side.
I was bored, so I backed up and pushed my way through the crowd. Mom was talking with someone. A man. She laughed. The man didn’t seem to be buying anything.
“This is Joe,” she said to me. “Ain’t it a coincidence? He stays near us.”
I didn’t like the look of him, but Mom didn’t leave a space for me to say anything. “You have to come visit when we’re back,” she told him. The Joe man and me stared at each other. “We’ll rustle up something special for ya,” Mom said, with a wink.
Joe had been selling pelts and had to buy his provisions before he left. Good. I had a brief sneaking fear that Mom might want to have him travel with us. Eventually the man moved off. Mom looked at me. I said nothing.
The flies buzzed. The last of the honeycombs got sold. We sat beside the remaining rows of potatoes and cabbages as the sun began to set.
“A good day,” Mom said, jingling the coins inside her jacket.
The market looked to be winding down. Some of the people packed up their stuff and left. The square emptied out and quieted as the sun went behind the buildings. I saw we weren’t the only ones with nowhere to go until the morning. Campfires got lit and folks were stretched out beside their stuff, getting comfortable.
High up in the open walls of the broken buildings rising above us, glowing lights appeared. It looked as if hundreds of fires floated in the air; all around us there were tiny pools of firelight.
“What?” I said to her.
“Nothing. Go look for stuff to burn,” she said, frowning.
I headed towards the closest heap of garbage, which lay some way beyond the dog pit area. I remembered thinking: Oh Pigman, where are you now?
When I got back to Mom, I fed wood to the fire and cuddled up with her and pulled the blanket around us. Like always, her hand touched me, as if she was making sure my parts were still there. She fell asleep quickly and slept heavily.
I was too jumpy, still unused to the feel of the city around me.
The area didn’t seem to get quiet. There were so many distant noises. Far-off screams and shouts, and it was impossible to tell if it was fun or murder, or both, or neither.
In the forest I always knew what was what. If something moved it was easy to tell if it was big or small, and sometimes, even whether it was hungry or not. I thought of Pigman and imagined him stroking my head and whispering real soft like he does.
Eventually I slept.
The market got going early, soon after sunrise, and the flies joined in soon after. A crowd gathered by the dog pit. I saw the dogs being brought in, carried in little boxes.
“Ah,” I said.
“What?” said Mom, eying the cabbage. I began to explain about the dogs, but halfway through I knew to just shut up. Mom wasn’t happy. Her head hurt and the man in charge had just been by for the day’s coin. Her mood seemed to improve when the last of the cabbages got sold. We’d been waiting for that for most of the morning. It was about damn time, said Mom.
I followed her as she bought supplies, moving quickly from one seller to the next. The bags slowly filled up, but compared to the weight of what we’d come with, they was easy carrying – mainly spices, rice, and salt.
High up, something moved on one of the buildings. I squinted up. Sheets flapped in the wind. What was it like to live up there with the city spread out below?
“Come on,” said Mom. I followed.
I had no idea when I’d ever see these things again, but I knew I was going to come back. Whether I’d do it alone, or with Pigman, I didn’t know. My old life didn’t feel anywhere near as good as it once had. I wanted to cry.
By sundown, we were still in the outskirts of the city, amongst the hills of collapsed houses. The trees had gradually reappeared and the forest was all around us again.
When we finally went to sleep, I dreamed. I don’t recall all of it but I remember that I had to use both hands as I held onto a large wriggling rat. I smelled the cheesy scent of rat fur and I felt its skin’s warmth, and beneath the flesh, the flexing of its muscles.
The next day dawned and we kept moving through the trees. The endless hills of old houses finally gave way to normal soil. Every step through forest made me relax more.
We spent most of the day on a trail through the trees. Only the flatness of the ground underfoot gave any clue that once upon a time it had been old road. Now that I’d seen the scale of what the Ancients had done, I knew they must have been insane and greedy. The closer we got to home territory, the happier I felt. Yet the urge for the city scratched at me. I wondered if maybe living with these opposite ideas was part of the Ancients’ madness.
We made it home. I hadn’t closed the traps before I left, so I had to go clean them out, which took a few days. Most of the things caught had been eaten by something. Only the paws remained, surrounded by fur and blood. From the look of the prints it was a large animal. I wasn’t sure what it could be, perhaps a cougar or maybe even a wolf.
Perhaps it was a dog that got loose from the camp? Did they still use dogs? I’d thought they’d all been eaten. A few years back at winter’s end, the hunger had been so fierce it had driven me to the camp garbage, where I’d found dog skulls. And where I’d first met Pigman.
“First crop of ‘taters is gonna be soon,” said Mom.
We were sitting on the porch taking in the sun. I whittled at sticks, sharpening them into spikes. I decided to make spike traps. I had found that they were sometimes a good way to let off steam.
In response to Mom, I glanced at the raised rows of potatoes. Before we’d left for the city I’d had to kick earth over the sprouts to keep them covered.
Mom took a sip from her bottle and I felt her eying me.
“How big you figure the thing is?”
“The new animal?” I said. She nodded. I showed with my hands what I figured it must be from side to side, given the spacing of the prints.
“If it’s cat family you better keep an eye on the trees as well,” she said, taking another sip. I hadn’t thought of that. She offered me the bottle. I shook my head.
“If it’s cat,” I said, “then it’ll have its favorite places it’ll keep coming back to.”
“I guess. They’re dumb that way.”
Mom and I sniffed at the same time and frowned. They were burning bodies in the camp again. The cooking-meat smell drove us crazy.
“Bastards,” said Mom.
I thought of the guard hut and Pigman. I pictured him poking through the garbage, and maybe wondering where I was.
“Drumsticks?” I said, and felt an odd tickle deep in my stomach.
Mom growled. “Yeah.”
They weren’t real drumsticks, just rat legs, but the cage trap in the bushes beside the camp was always full.
“Okay,” I said. I straightened up, brushed off wood shavings. I scooped up the basket and went to fetch the gloves. You can’t reach into a trap of angry rats without padding. My stomach made noises. I wished the wind would change. Sometimes the burning went on for days.
Mom leaned back, bottle in hand and smiled. “Ready and waiting for when ya get back,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah.” I was suddenly angry at my body for doing what it did.
I stomped off and jumped the fence. I was into the field beyond by the time I realized I’d forgotten the knife. But no way was I going back. I’d have to crack the rats’ necks by hand before dropping them in the basket. That thought made me feel a little better.
The smoke and meat smell was getting stronger. I kept swallowing coz my stupid mouth was making spit like it thought there was a feast coming. I reached the trees at the bottom of the field and checked there weren’t any patrols. The far end of the second field ended in thick bushes where the trap was. Beyond the bushes was the open ground which led to the barbed wire fence.
I heard the rats hissing and squeaking in the cage. I got closer and smelled them. The cage was a foot deep in brown rats, a layer of dead and half-eaten ones at the bottom.
When I got back home, the onions had already been sliced and were waiting on the cutting board. The jar of badger fat had been put beside the cleaver.
I heard Mom below in the cellar as I started splitting the rats. The faint noises paused when I cut the first rat, and then as I kept on chopping, they picked up again.
As the rats cracked in two, I sneaked a look at Mom and thought back to when we first started doing this. I liked to look down at Mom from behind when her eyes couldn’t see mine. The pile of rat-halves grew larger. I still had to peel off the fur and tug out the guts. I stuck my pinkie finger into the split-rat skulls, scooped out the tongues, and made a little mound of glistening pinkness on the kitchen counter.
I don’t know if you’ve ever cut into a living thing and slid your hand into it, pushed deep until your arm was squeezed by hot wetness and flesh on all sides of it. Sometimes it felt like I had a gash, and through it, a hand had been shoved inside me, to push and pull at me for no good reason that I could understand.
I cooked the food and ate. I set the pot aside for her and went outside and into the forest. Sometime it helped to walk. The sound of the wind in the trees was comforting.
Eventually I grew tired of walking.
I slowly climbed a tree and rose into moonlight and rested on a comfortable branch. The smoke from the burning bodies was in the sky, the haze visible against the moon.
I thought about the city and imagined living so far away. I looked around me. On all sides, the forest spread off like the soil of another country. In the night winds, the treetops moved gently. There was a larger world beyond the few miles I had claimed as my home territory. I’d known it was out there but I’d never trod on its edges before, I’d never seen it for real.
The sense of it being out there stirred me, like Pigman’s fingers.
There was a distant noise, almost like a cough, from somewhere in the forest. The night birds in the area went quiet and even though I knew it was dumb, I peered down, but I was so high up I couldn’t even see the ground, let alone anything else.
I waited but the sound didn’t come again.
When I came in, it was some time before dawn and Mom was sleeping in a chair. It looked like she’d been waiting for me. I woke her up and took her into the bedroom. We slid into bed and she pulled me close. I could taste the sourness she sometimes got from drinking.
I should have known things were about to go bad.
The next morning, we began to gather the first crop of potatoes. Mom and me were on out hands and knees, feeling for the potatoes, and yanking them out. I’d read that people used to grow potatoes in straw. I was busy telling Mom about it when we heard a voice coming from the front of the house.
I made to get up and run for the bow and arrow.
“Wait,” said Mom. She dusted off her hands and moved around the house. I got the weapons and was hurrying after her, when I heard her laugh. I rounded the corner.
It was the man she’d talked with at the market. Joe. He was wearing a long coat and had a backpack slung over his shoulder.
Mom shot a look at me. “You remember him, don’t you?”
I wasn’t sure who she was speaking to, me or him. Her eyes lit up and there was color in her cheeks.
“Hey,” he said.
Without waiting for me to reply, Mom went on talking real fast, as if I weren’t even there. “Well ain’t this a surprise and a half?” she said. “I mean I didn’t really expect ya to pay us a visit so soon! It’s such a nice surprise! But look at the state of me, I’m so sorry, we been picking potatoes, and…”
It went on like that for a long time, all the way into the living room.
Joe put his bag down. “Nice place you have here,” he said.
“Oh,” said Mom, “please, have a seat.” Her hands wiped at the front of her skirt.
He sat. They grinned at each other.
She said, “You want some peppermint tea?”
Joe looked my way. “Careful with that,” he said, eying my arrows. “You could put someone’s eye out.”
Mom glared and then pretended she hadn’t. “It’s fine, we’re fine, go put those down and give us some space, all right? Let the grown ups talk.”
“When are you leaving?” I said to Joe.
“Don’t be so rude!” said Mom. “Joe’s only just arrived. Please excuse him. I don’t know where he gets it from.”
Joe reckoned it was all right. Mom asked again if he wanted some tea.
“Well, I just happened to bring along a little refreshment of my own,” he said, and reached into his bag.
He pulled out a bottle and Mom smiled.
“Distilled it myself,” he said, pulling the cork. The sound of it and Mom’s sigh came at the same time. She barely glanced my way.
“Mom? What about the potatoes?” I asked.
“Sonny, your ma and me got some talking to do,” he said as he passed her the bottle. His eyes looked me over from bottom to top.
“Get,” Mom said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Pigman looked at me in a way that made my heart sore. “At last. It’s you,” he said.
Once upon a time, I asked Pigman how come he was always here on duty. He said it was because the officers didn’t like him. Not that he minded much, because it was interesting work, checking for valuables.
I squinted at the mounds of garbage around us.
He smiled and told me to work it out. I eyed the piles of torn clothes, shoes, bags, and suitcases from the prisoners. I told him that I couldn’t see what might be of value in that heap: the camp’s thrown-out food was kept in a separate mound.
He grinned at me and shook his head.
In the fire, a pair of some kid’s pajama pants burned slowly. On the cloth, crowds of little rabbits went dark in the flames. Pigman picked up a stick and scratched at the thick ash built up under the grate.
“Ah!” Pigman said. He leaned forward, pulled on a thick glove, and picked something up. He rubbed it between his fingers and then held it up for me to see. The thing was blackened and circular.
“What is that?” I said.
“An old watch,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s gold or silver or just some cheap family keepsake. But there you go. That’s one of the valuables.” He turned and threw it into a container behind him. “That’s for the duty officer at the end of the day.”
“As long as that bin has some useful things for the officers, they leave me alone,” he said. “Although the real good stuff I ain’t stupid enough to pass to them.”
I asked just what exactly the real good stuff was.
He looked around as if to make sure no one might be watching, then reached into his shirt and pulled out a little bag tied at one end. After poking round in it for a moment, he pulled out something small and shiny. It looked like a piece of glass.
“There ya go,” he said.
“That’s a valuable?” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Very.”
“What does it do?”
“It gets you things.”
“Anything you want.”
He held it closer, I stared at it. The little stone seemed to twinkle in the light.
“It’s very pretty,” I said.
“So are you,” said Pigman.
I guess that’s how things first began between us.
As time went by, Pigman and I got thoroughly acquainted. I remember lying in his arms in the little hut and thinking how lucky I was to have found such a good friend.
I stared into the fire, watching a jacket burn.
Although Pigman understood me well enough to ride out the silence, it was too much for him this time.
“What’s up?” he said.
I sighed and filled him in on the last week. I told him about everything. The journey. The city. The arrival of Joe.
“You don’t want to share her, is that it?” said Pigman, thoughtfully.
I wasn’t sure. I knew that he shared me and never minded.
“Yeah but everyone’s different, you know?” he responded. “Maybe it’s about him coming into your territory.”
I could see his point. But it didn’t make me feel better.
The next day, before sunup, I went out to check traps. I didn’t need to, but I had to go someplace. A part of me was hoping that when I came back Joe would be gone. He wasn’t. Mom was in the kitchen making food. I put the meat by the backdoor and sat on the porch whittling. I knew the potatoes had to be dug up, but I wasn’t going to get on my hands and knees and do her work.
Mom’s voice cut in on my thoughts. “I’m getting just what I need.
I looked at her. She stood eying me. Her bare legs stuck out below the hem of the old wraparound robe.
“And what about me?” I said. I looked down at the knife and went on carving. I wasn’t sure what I was whittling, but I have a feeling it was another spike for the traps.
“I don’t know,” she said.
I saw through the window the Joe man as he came into the kitchen. He noticed us. “What’s up?”
I could smell the both of them. My teeth pressed tight against each other. But Mom didn’t seem to be done yet.
“We can work it out,” she said, still looking at me, “and come to an arrangement.”
“What’s this?” Joe said, sounding pleased.
Suddenly my legs seemed to move by themselves. I was over the fence and gone. I heard her call out. But I ran and kept on going. My face felt like it was swollen.
I headed north, crossed the road and ran through brush. The sting of the thorn bushes felt good.
I slept in the forest that night. There was no moon and it was real dark. I found a good tree and settled halfway up, surrounded by lots of leaves to break the chill wind.
I think I dreamed, although what about, I couldn’t say.
The next morning, I found branches, made a fire, and then checked nearby traps. There was a squirrel in the first one. I dropped it into the fire to cook.
What did I want?
I wanted arms that held me when I wanted them to hold me. I wanted someone to rely on. Whatever dumb ideas I may have had before, it was clear that Mom would go her own way whenever she felt like it. And she’d do it even faster if she was drunk. This state of affairs might have been alright before, but it wasn’t enough anymore.
It was funny. When Pigman and me first got together, I always used to be freaked out by his need to hold me afterwards. I could never see the sense in it. I was so young then. Oh my Pigman.
I didn’t go home at all that day. I just roamed around the forest, thinking about the new animal, and wondering why I’d left the knife at the house. It didn’t worry me, but my thoughts kept coming back to whatever was out there. Then the thought of Mom and the Joe man would come back, and I’d forget about the new animal. There were no more thorn bushes to take my mind off it, but some time near dusk, I found a cold, quick-running stream. It was a good substitute. The trick was to step out of the water before the numbness made it bearable. The day just disappeared.
Night fell. I found a good tree again and climbed up high.
It was deep in the heart of the night when a loud sound woke me. I was confused at first. There was an ongoing throbbing noise, but when the cough came, I knew what was below. I kept still and listened. Was it climbing? Was it already in the tree, moving towards me?
On the ground, leaves crackled. Another cough, this time so loud that it made the tree shake. The branches under me felt like they were humming. The creature was big.
There was a long drawn-out choking cry, like when you’re trying to be sick and nothing’s coming out. Then silence. No crickets or birds, nothing.
A twig snapped. I didn’t move.
The beast was padding back and forth around the tree, softly, horribly softly.
Time passed, I became enraged at the beast below for being the dumb mindless animal it was. Slowly I became even more angry with myself for not letting go of the branch and falling into the darkness to meet the creature.
The pressure grew inside me. I tried to fight it. I started to scream wildly.
I forget much of what happened next.
I do recall thinking of Pigman’s lips, and I have a memory of staring skyward and wishing there was a moon. I know that for a long time I babbled and wept, although what I may have said, or who I thought I was speaking to, I honestly couldn’t say.
I suppose that the important thing was that at some point, the beast left.
Even though the bird calls and other forest noises returned, I stayed where I was and gradually drifted off to sleep again. I waited until it was real bright the next morning before I came down from the tree.
The paw prints were big, much wider than my hand.
That day I wandered through the forest and the scent of things felt especially vivid, as if a storm had come and gone unnoticed.
I made it back home just after sunset.
I saw the light in the windows from some way off. The lamps had been lit. The smell of the camp was on the wind, and suddenly my chest hurt and I wanted to see Pigman again. I knew it was dumb. He’d be off duty now and somewhere inside the camp, the hut would be dark and probably overrun with rats.
I leapt over the fence and crossed the garden. The crops still hadn’t been watered.
Mom was coming out of the bathroom. She grabbed me, her tongue tasted of alcohol and she swayed when she finally stepped back.
“You came back.”
“He came back!” Mom said towards the bedroom.
I heard Joe’s voice say, “See? I told you!”
Mom staggered around, holding me tight and dancing to music that wasn’t there. She led me down the passage, humming and making us circle around each other. Next thing I knew, we were in the bedroom. She pulled me down on top of her on the bed. Joe was lying next to us, looking like a mound of black hairy skin.
I struggled. Her nose rubbed at my face.
“You’re smelly,” she said, her arms wrapped around me. She kissed me again and in spite of what I felt and Joe being there, my body responded. I heard Joe say, “Nice.” His hand touched my back.
I felt the mattress shift. I struggled, but Mom was too strong.
“Let me go!” I said.
“Don’t be like that, honey,” she said.
Between my spread-open legs I felt Joe getting closer. I wriggled, trying to break free. His hand slapped my back and pushed me down.
I tried to get free. I think that’s when Joe punched the back of my head. I know I saw stars. A sharp pain lanced as he pushed into me. I vaguely recall Mom’s voice close by my ear, and her tongue on my cheek.
I got hit again.
After that, there’s a gap in my memories.
I know for sure that I woke up sometime before dawn. I had a headache and felt real ill. They were both fast asleep. I shrugged off Mom’s arm and slid from the bed. As I straightened up, the snoring continued. I was aching and sore.
I gathered up some clothes and packed them into a bag.
I paused by the bedroom. Perhaps it was something about the skin of old people, but it seemed to me that the flesh spilled from around Mom’s bones and ran onto the bed, almost as if she weren’t a person at all, but some sort of puddle spreading across the sheets.
I slowly backed away and padded out through the kitchen and left. It was an hour or two before dawn and there was a chill in the air. The searchlights swept silently across the camp in the distance.
It turned out I was wrong about rats in Pigman’s hut. The interior of the hut was dark, the air thick with the old moldy-cloth smell of the cushions that we always lay on. I stretched out and slowly exhaled.
The hut didn’t seem lonely at all.
I didn’t know when Pigman would arrive, but I guessed it would be early. I found a towel and wrapped it around myself. I shut my eyes for a moment. Parts of me throbbed and felt like they were on fire in a way that never happened with Pigman and me. Somehow, I must have drifted off to sleep.
The next thing I remember was a soft voice whispering near my ear.
Rubbing my eyes, I saw Pigman blinking down at me.
I reached for him and he took me in his arms.
“What’s happened?” he asked, sensing something was up.
I told him. He listened and his face went so still you’d have thought he’d been carved out of stone. He stroked the side of my face. He looked down at my legs, and now in the morning light I could see the dried blood there. I winced as he felt the lump on the back of my head. For some reason I felt stupid. I said I was sorry as he rolled me over and carefully checked between my legs.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” he said in a real gentle voice. He held me close and then I kissed him. I hadn’t planned it or anything, I just did what I needed to do. We stayed like that for a long time.
“That’s it then,” Pigman said, almost to himself, after a while.
“What’s it?” I said.
“You aren’t going back there,” he said.
I knew that much. I said that if I could stay with him, I’d keep real quiet and not do anything that might let anyone know.
“That isn’t safe enough,” he said. “Too many ways someone might find you.” He took a breath, and looked at the wall as if seeing through it to the camp beyond.
I stayed quiet. I knew Pigman liked to talk things through, more for himself than for me. It was one of the pleasures of lying sticky and sweaty with him, as he chased after his thoughts. He was still holding me, supporting my weight.
“Who’d have thought it?” he whispered.
I stayed inside the hut that day. Pigman brought me food. Later, he settled down with cotton wool, and put some stinging liquid on the sore area and cleaned it. He pulled a face as if he could feel the hurt as well as me.
“All better,” he said finally. His lips touched me there softly, and then he tugged my pants up and squinted for a moment.
“Yeah,” he said, as if I’d said something and he’d decided to agree with it. I hadn’t spoken, but I understood and I nodded.
We looked at each other and ignored the distant screams of the prisoners.
“Yeah,” said Pigman again. Then he told me what we were going to do.
At sundown Pigman went off to his quarters as usual. As there was no light, I went to sleep early. I had no dreams. But sometime in the middle of the night, he woke me gently. When we kissed, I could smell that he’d showered.
We stepped outside the hut. He had bags slung over his shoulder and he passed me one. “Food,” he explained.
We set off, moving away from the garbage piles and the roving lights. As we reached the forest, I touched his hand and he gave mine a little squeeze.
It seemed an impossibly short time before I saw the lights of the house ahead.
I stopped. My heart started beating faster.
“You sure?” Pigman whispered by my ear.
The machete glinted as he pulled it out of his bag.
Pigman stepped over the back fence. “Wait here,” he said.
“I want to be part of it.”
He came back to me. He shook his head.
It was only the fact that he called me darling without noticing that kept me from protesting further. He said I might get in the way accidentally and be hurt, and more than anything else in the world, he didn’t want that.
I took a breath and said that I could see that he was maybe right.
He moved across the garden and slipped through the door. I watched his outline through the kitchen windows as he disappeared deeper into the house.
There were no clouds tonight. The moonlight was so bright it made the shadows seem blacker than usual.
Pigman reappeared so soon that I thought something had gone wrong. His outline flickered beyond the windows, and then he was standing in the doorway.
He was still holding the machete.
“Can I see?” I asked.
I halted in the bedroom doorway. There was a single deep cut across each of their necks. I stepped closer. Mom’s expression looked like she’d been thinking something important. The Joe man’s face was turned away from me. The gash which had split his neck apart, had freed a bone that jutted from the wound, looking far too white.
Without a word, Pigman put his arm around my shoulder and we walked down the passage and out the door. As the night folded around us, I had a sense of relief.
We halted in the thick grass beside the leaf-covered road. I glanced back at the house. The lamp-light in the windows looked like gold squares floating in the darkness.
There was a noise from somewhere deep in the forest. I recognized that cough. As the distant sound echoed, I remembered thinking, It’s all yours.
A soft wind blew up and rustled the leaves on the trees.
“Heh,” said Pigman. “Isn’t this a genuine made-in America love story, huh?”
“What’s America?” I said.
“It looks like you’ve still got some learning to do,” he said.
He pulled me close as we kissed.
When we pulled apart, he eyed me as he got the straps of my bag comfortable.
I just smiled and shook my head.
He took my hand and we set off along the road.
A little later on, Pigman snorted to himself.
“America,” he said, and shook his head and smiled, as if I’d said something real funny.
Ian Fraser, a South African writer, playwright and comedian, now lives in the USA.