“You have to singe the hair off, remove the insides, then pop it back on the fire again to cook.” He scooped the rat’s innards out, flicked them to one side, then placed the rat back on the fire. He grabbed another from the wriggling bag. “Stretch them gently to break the neck.” The rat put up little resistance as he pulled at its head. He poked a stick through it and placed it next to the others on the fire – a neat little row of rat kebabs. He had been through this little routine many times, possibly in the hope that I would do it one day.
“How many we got left?”
“Enough.” He prodded at the fire, turned the charred little bodies, and passed me one.
“I’ll catch more tomorrow, keep the bag wriggling.” I tucked in.
I caught, he killed – this was our division of labour. Rat tasted like shit, but not as shit as other stuff we’d eaten. We always overcooked them, preferring the taste of burn to the flesh.
“We’ll eat this, fill our water up, then walk till nightfall, okay?”
I nodded whilst I munched.
“Where we headed?”
He pointed ahead, toward the ravine, where the two hills met.
“Are we ever gonna stop?”
“Why would we do that?”
“Dunno.” I shrugged.
“Well then.” He stared morosely ahead.
We walked in silence. We always did. I liked the hills, the ups and downs, the feeling of having traversed a great distance, our journey mapped in my body’s memory and my aching muscles. I imagined myself being watched from a great height; from a tall tree, a soaring bird, a plane, a satellite, another planet; my body slowly shrinking and then disappearing. There were no planes any more, and we rarely saw birds. This must be what it was like before man built on the land, just rolling hills and red skies. Spring meant that the days were getting longer, so we walked more, but it also brought with it optimism and warmth.
Moving gave us purpose. We both acknowledged that. To stay put was to give up, but how long would we keep walking? Jay always said too much thinking was bad for you. You think too much when you stay put. Stillness leads to melancholy, he said. He was probably right; I did always lose myself staring into the fire. Probably in the same way he lost himself imagining what was over the next horizon. For now I was happy to walk. We ate, and we moved through life, one point to another.
We used to walk side by side, but this led to talking, which meant disappointment. Now I walked behind him. I was his shadow. I wondered how far I could drop behind before he noticed I was gone. He never checked if I was there, and we rarely spoke. It could be hours before he noticed I had disappeared. We could lose one another and then find each other again.
He stopped and looked around. It wasn’t fully dark yet, so we didn’t need to rest. He crouched down low and beckoned me. I walked over to him.
“Look.” He pointed. In the distance, I could make out dark shapes on the hillside.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
We sat for a while and stared at the silhouettes. They didn’t move or make a sound. As the light dimmed they lost definition and merged to become a mass of darkness.
“We can’t stay here,” he whispered.
“We should go and see what it is.”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. It’s definitely something.”
“I say we walk this way.” He gestured in a direction away from the hillside.
“What is the point in all this if we don’t go and see?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are we just walking, or are we searching?”
“I don’t know. I’m just don’t know anymore.” He sat down and sighed. He muttered and fumbled for words. “I pretend sometimes… that we are just between all the normal things. I imagine that at the end of all this, it will be just the same as it was. Do you?” He looked at me and I nodded. ”We just have to get through this. We have to just ride this bit out.” He picked at the grass, small blades at first, and then big soil clumps. He dipped his head so I couldn’t see him crying. He sniffed and wiped the bloody snot from his nose.
I stood and walked ahead, then turned to him. “Come on.” We walked on, and this time he was my shadow.
The shapes became clearer as we approached. They were huge carcasses, at least ten of them. Their dry, white bones gleamed in the moonlight. We approached one of the bodies. They were much bigger than I ever imaged them. We both surveyed the scene before us. One lay on its side with its neck stretched out, its skull upright to the ground making it look twisted and wrong. Dark, empty eye sockets stared peacefully ahead.
“Looks like they all died at the same time.”
“Or came together to die.”
I could smell the last of the day’s warmth emanating from what little flesh was left on their bones. I slipped my hand into his and we stood for a while, neither talking. I imagined us from high above – me, Jay and the piles of bones. I imagined our thoughts swirling around us and rising into the atmosphere, joining the thoughts of others. Did cows have thoughts?
We left the hillside of bones and carried on walking. Night was creeping in so we walked closer to one another. You could gauge the light of the day by our proximity. We would have to find somewhere to sleep soon. We walked, the crunch of our footsteps the only sound. The ground was getting hard and I could see my breath.
The old farmhouse was tucked into the corner of a field, surrounded by the skeletons of old machinery. Some rusty, corrugated iron flapped on the roof as we approached, as if panicking.
You could smell the life inside as soon as we opened the door. The scent, like warm metal and urine permeated the room. I heard a whimper as we walked in. Jay slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled his knife out and we approached. I could see Jay’s wide, white eyes as we walked slowly toward the noise. My breathing stopped and I could hear the rush of blood in my head. The bitch and her puppies were huddled in the corner, cowering as we moved towards her. She was all sweat and dirt, and was panting heavily. I poured some water in my cup and held it for her to drink.
“Save your water, she’s gonna die anyway.”
“What we going to do with her?”
“I’m taking the puppies.”
“Can we leave her one?”
“Maybe. I wonder where the male is.”
We both sat and watched as she fed her pups. You could feel the heat coming off her. The writhing little bodies squeaked gently as they suckled.
We slept in the same bag that night, and he held me close. He was funny like that, hardly touched me during the day, but all over me and inside me at night. After we had done it, he turned away and lifted his arm for me to fit mine though. He was asleep and snoring within minutes. I gently eased my arm from around him, tucked it under my chin and closed my eyes. The sounds of the panting dog feeding her pups disturbed my sleep. I tried to synchronise my breathing with hers, and I thought about all those little mouths suckling on her teats.
I dreamt that night. We were sleeping on the hillside amongst the dead cows. Jay was next to me, but he was all bones, his ribs jutted out from his chest. Turning to me his jaw clacked, ‘if you don’t move, you’ll change too.’
I couldn’t move my legs, and looking down I saw my feet were stumpy white bones. I wiggled my bony toes and held my hands up to my face. One was a skeleton and the other a dog paw. I tried to tell Jay, but it came out as a bark. He started to move closer, his bones falling away as he lifted his arm to put it around me.
When I woke, I felt my legs and studied my hands. A dim arc of light was moving over the opposite wall from the high window. I followed it till it faded into the light that crept from under the door. Jay was already awake, I could tell from his breathing.
“You were barking in your sleep.”
“Was I? Sorry.”
We packed up in silence and I went over to see the dogs. I bent down beside the bitch and stroked her. The puppies whimpered as they clambered over each other fighting for space. I moved one aside, leant in to her nipples and put my lips around it. I sucked gently. The milk was warm and sweet. She looked round at me briefly then returned her head to the floor with a whimper.
“You should have some too,” I said to Jay.
“Nah.” He walked over with his bag and picked up the pups one by one and dropped them in.
“You need to leave a male,” I told him. He inspected the last pup and put it back with mum. She didn’t lift her head.
“Come on, we’re leaving.”
“Now?” I stroked her gently between her eyes, and she closed them. I wanted to stay with her, but Jay was already by the door. The day’s light filled the room as he dragged it open. The bag was wriggling and yelping on his back. “We need to find wood for the fire.” He walked out and I followed.
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Photo by Tomek Dzido