Bourbon Penn 5

On That Time We Crossed

by Sam Duda

There was a way to go. I can't remember why you climbed from the car when you did. Was there a gate? A goat to shoo from the road? Father was there, Mark too, and it was night. We drove the car to the last point it could go before we started the walk. You got out, and we couldn't see you. You were wearing a black vest, I guess, as usual, and it was dark, and hot, sticky flies stuck to our skin. I asked, "Where is she? Can you see her?" but no one could, so Father pulled forward, and there was the bump. We didn't see you until we felt you underneath, and then I was up, and I saw you stumble, bounce upwards like the cat after her accident, and I saw you in the lights from the car. "Are you okay?" I asked. "What happened, are you okay?" And you said you were, or you nodded, and you staggered a little. I'd seen you do it before. The time at the wedding, when you tried the juice and you tried a cartwheel. You said it was the juice that made you fall. "My head and shoulder feel hot," you said when you got back in. "It is hot," Mark said. And he asked if you were okay, we were all asking you if you were okay. "You don't understand," you said, "A new baby was born there. Like the soldiers they buried. Beneath the fortress with their sons and daughters." Father looked at you in the mirror then. Your fists were clenched. I reached to you and told you, "Shh," but you were just talking. And we let you.

Some time after, we left the car and started to walk. Mark said you needed a doctor, that we could find one when we reached the next village, but it was some way off, so you had to be quiet and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. It was so hot, even for that time of night, but we pushed on in a line, Father in front, then Mark, then me. I could hear you behind, and I kept turning to see you, but you would say you were fine, but your shoulder felt hot, your head was burning. Sometimes, I could hear you muttering to yourself. "They find it so easy," you said once. "It's like floating. Where's Mother? Where is Mother?" I told you, "Soon," and then you were silent until we reached the outskirts of the village.

Up against the fence, Father told us it was gone midnight and we were to wait, to rest up for tomorrow. "We have a big day," he said. "Help me, Mark," he said. And they disappeared into the trees behind us, and we waited, and you lay in my lap and said you felt sick, and I stroked your hair, and we looked into the village for signs of life, but there was nothing but a dying fire. "My shoulder," you said, "We need to get sticks. There's a plane can take me, it'll go on its own. No Mother. No wings." I told you, "Shh," and I remember you had tears in your eyes, but you weren't sad, you said, just tired. "We can sleep when Father returns with Mark," I said, "Now, shh." You started to shiver in my arms. And before you fell asleep, you told me you loved me.

Your eyes didn't open the next morning. Father said we were to go on, that we had no time to waste. "Help her," he told me, "If you have to carry her, you carry her." So I lifted you, and you weighed nothing, and I got you over the fence, and in the village the fire was dying a little more than it was the night before. Mark was angry. He kicked at the fire, and then at a goat, but you didn't see it. I made sure you were turned away, but you were sleeping, and I could feel your breath in my ear, "My shoulder. Mother. My shoulder. Mother. My shoulder. Mother," like that as I carried you.

That day, Father said we had to go twenty miles. And me with you on my back. Mark told me to put you down, to let you rest and we'd get you on the way back, but I knew you'd be so cross if you didn't get to see Mother, if we weren't all together. I don't know how long we walked. And the sun grew hotter until I couldn't feel my feet, but you were cold, my back ran with cold sweat. I told Father you needed a doctor and you were getting heavier. But Father said nothing. He looked straight ahead, and I followed. And you followed me, your sad bones heavy and heavier on my back. That night we reached another village, and it was empty too. And Father made us wait together and went with Mark, and you slept in my arms and I sang you a song.

When they got back they were covered in earth, and their hands were black and they smelled of metal. Father had some bread, some water, but you were out, so I kept you some bread, dropped water onto your mouth. I watched you sleep until I slept too. We were up again with the first light, Father shook me awake. He told me to leave you. I didn't understand. "Not here," I said, "We can't leave her here." He looked at me a long time, then said, "Of course not here. I meant leave her sleeping." And he patted my arm and left some of that black on me, that smell of metal. "You're doing well," he said, and Mark nodded as we set out again, you on my back.

We came to cliffs and followed the path above the sea, and sometimes it was close, and other times I took you inland to keep you away from the crumbling rocks. You whispered, "Thank you," and you started to stick to me in the heat as the sun got higher, and it was the hottest day I remember, the light off the water, the dust picking up and finding its way into my throat. You kept slipping from my back and I couldn't hold you, so Mark lashed us together, your arms hanging loose around my neck, and we walked into the sun. As the sun set, you started to talk to me, telling me to put you down, that you wanted to go it alone. "Put me down, put me down, put me down," you whispered, your lips dry against my ear, "I can do it. I can hear Mother. My shoulder feels better. Leave me in that bush. I'll follow later." I shut your voice out. I knew you couldn't do it.

Soon it got darker, and I could barely see Father and Mark in front of me. My tongue was fat in my mouth, and you whispered on, and there was a smell in my nose, up from your arms that made my eyes water. It was too much. You pulling down, cold on my neck, the ropes burning into my stomach and tearing at my flesh. I stopped and took you from my back and lay you in the grass in front of me, your mouth hanging open, flies at your half closed eyes. "Okay," I said to you and smoothed your hair, "Okay." I scooped you up in my arms, and your head lolled back as we moved from the path and inland, into trees. When I asked you if it was good, you nodded, I remember it now, you nodded, so I put you down, gently, and you winked. And then I left you. Back on the path I hurried to catch up with the others and I didn't look back, but I knew you would be following. Not immediately maybe, but you would be following. You'd find us. You always knew Mother the best.

That night, Father asked me where you were and I told them you'd be coming. We slept, and I dreamt of you in that bush, your mouth open, waiting for your time to follow. And when you followed, you rode wolves, and I could hear them that night, and you were riding them towards us, maybe ahead of us, on your way to Mother. You had fruit in your pockets, and milk. You let me ride the wolves with you, and you laughed when they jumped higher and higher over the ground.

In the morning, we walked on again, and we found the next village empty, too. But the fires were bigger, and Father said we were closer. I went to go with them for food, but they made me wait outside a hut, and when they came out, Mark had a knife. It was dirty, the black sticky stuff on it, and he wiped it on his shorts. I thought I heard Mother in there, just the sound of her voice, her laugh maybe, but not her laugh. It was like the time you'd been in bed for a week, do you remember?

When we lay down to sleep that night, I didn't close my eyes. I kept a look out. There was a big moon and stars. It was very clear, and I could see into the trees, and I thought of you in the bush. What were you telling me? What was in that wink? I saw you in the night everywhere. Father and Mark were sleeping and I counted their breathing, watched their bodies curved away from me, and pulled closer into their warmth. And then I understood. I got it. That wink. The way you shaped your mouth into an O. Your eyes like that. I got up from beside Father, and I crept away, into those trees, and back the way we'd come. I knew where you'd be, that you'd know I was coming. You always knew me best. I ran through the trees, and I laughed when I imagined you there, when you saw my face, and that I'd found you again. I jumped higher and higher over the ground like your wolves, swinging from branch to branch, and Father and Mark were far behind, still sleeping. I'd be back for them, we'd be back. I pushed on and on into the trees, running further into the dark, the bushes. At one point, I fell, and a root poked into my foot. It cut me open, and there was that black, that smell of metal. I stepped sticky black prints, and a pain climbed up my leg, and it grabbed hold of me. I sat and my eyes closed, just for a while, but I knew where you were then, and it didn't matter because I knew it was coming morning. There was something in the air, and I listened to the birds and thought about the fruit and milk you'd have, let the smell of metal come over me. And the wind was whispering with dry lips at my ear, "Thank you," and, "Put me down, put me down, put me down."

When I woke, it was all gone, and there was quiet. And my foot was good again, and I could walk. And I came out of the trees, and I was by that path, the one that went along the cliffs, the path above the sea. The sun was coming up, red over the water, and it was then I saw you. And Mother. Your shoulder was better, I could see that. And Mother. I'll never know how you found her. I know you'll never say, but it was in that wink. And the wolves waited while we stood together, and Mother pointed back into the trees, back towards Mark, back towards Father, and told us their fire was still awake. And we said nothing. And we started the walk back.

Sam Duda was born in 1982 in Norfolk, England. He began writing after police questioned him over a murder. He has had short stories published in literary journals and anthologies in the UK and US. In 2009 he co-wrote a play which opened the St Ives Arts Festival. This is his second appearance in Bourbon Penn. He currently lives in Cornwall.