Chapter 1:

The Long Way Home

Shokrypt: Between Memory and Dream

We always taked the long way home. Beat up dust path’s yellow an’ old as Camp, as the first people went to Camp. Old as Cormanditure. Runs in a frayed line more or less straight through the acres. We come up to the hill late in the afternoon when the day’s got to drifting, apex a’ the path. When our eyes surface above the crest we’ll see lights. They’ll be waiting. Been walking for hours. Left Camp lights behind us at tail a’ morning and seen none since. ‘Cept Falmer’s a’course. Here we go.

There are sixteen bushes, all of ‘em on fire. Sixteen tangles lit up wi’ sun. Spindly black limbs, thick at the joint, skin all blasted wi’ light. I seen them sixteen near enough every day since I got started. Seen ‘em grow. Well, known they grown at least. You don’t ever see things grow. Jus’ one day they bigger, same as you. That’s how it is. That’s how it was with the sixteen. Only ever see the change when you not there, when you don’t see it, if you get me.

I remember when I got sick, Doc Kadesky laid me up, must a’ been a month, ‘least. Got the shade see, lot a’ that going round at the time, they said it come from East. From them Tarkers up there East. Anyways, got to resting, lot of other kids did worse ‘n me, thought a lot ‘bout that, how the shade got them other kids. You only ever hear, never see an’ that’s the worst about it. So I laid up at the Doc’s, done nothing much ‘sides sweating and thinking, ran out of things to think about in the end, started thinking ‘bout sweating. Never could work out how them was tied up.

Anyways, yeah, was pretty bad, but then come day a’fore Samstiss, I wake up good as new. Brow dry as the air, shade gone as quick as it came, moved on to some easier kid I ‘spect. So I come back on the path, walking all morning growing back my legs - never realised how tough the ground was, they say I lost a lot a’ weight I never got back. Shade takes that from you see, you never get away clean. Might stay with you, just a bit, I always been a bit greyer since then, bit more like a statue, running not coming so easy. Some people even thought I’s an islander - them Gambles on the south bank for instance, wouldn’t believe me till I showed ‘em the scar.

Anyways, that morning the shade left me I come up to the apex - that’s what he called it - and there they were, the sixteen. Almost didn’t recognise ‘em. Seemed like the weight I lost, they stole. Was more ‘n happy to let ‘em though. I was smiling. Them sixteen they been my friends see, never had a bad word to say ‘bout me nor me them. We kept secrets me an’ them sixteen. I been a good friend to ‘em. Doc said they were a symbol. Said it’s best not to dwell on symbols, get fixed up on ‘em, you easily trip yourself, be found hanging in morning’s what Doc said. Only he meant dwell like when you think, see, not where you think, or stop thinking if you’re aching.

Only dwell I ever known’s the bank and Camp. And Doc’s for that month a’course. Still I’m not sure, symbol or not, the only good come out a’ the acres for me sprung right there out a’ that hill. The sixteen took me in when it rained so hard the grass got all drowned an’ the mud and water turned into each other. I spent three nights up there on that hill under ‘em whilst most everyone else was upping and leaving for East or sitting on rooftops. Whole a’ the acres pretty much underwater and I sat on the hill, eating pink’uns, drinking rain and sleeping. When they found me I’s fitter ‘n them. Running all sorts a’ tests and I never felt more heathful. I’ve always been healthful, ‘cept when I got the shade, even after the water drained away and the insects came, flying and biting, I never got ill. Get toughened up when you only know one type of dwell.

Shooting out starlight, that’s what they doing. Making sure they don’t swell up too much and ‘splode just like the old ‘un said. I’m on my back and baking, the car’s all heated up, roof hot against my back, metal carries the heat, see. And sun’s fat today, having to squeeze it out a’ my eyes. Even if I close ‘em it’s still too bright - no time to be on your back staring at the sky unless you don’t want to see no more. And some people don’t, you know. Miss Wil, she said that to me. Not me exactly, but I heard her, out the window, from between those pretty little red flowers she got lined up on the box. Redder’n her lips. That’s why I’s there, truth be told, Miss Wil’s lips. Nothing bad see, just I liked looking ‘em, all shiny wi’ that stuff she rubbed on ‘em in the morning. Wonder if she rubs it on at night.

Anyways, I heard her, saying how she’s tired, how her eyes are tired. Tired a’ the world, she said. And Miss Wil she does sleep a lot, I should know, so she’s not lying. I never heard Miss Wil lie. ‘Bout the only person round the acres that don’t. Even I caught myself at it couple a’ times – not to you, see, not to friends; just when I needed or I weren’t thinking, but still, Miss Wil she never needed, never needed enough, least.

She was talking but there was only her there. No one paying her visits, no one to talk to. Not that that’s how it always was, I’m not the only brak noticed those shiny lips. Probably the only one noticed those flowers though, ‘cept Miss Wil herself. So she’s talking to no one. I could hear from the garden, couldn’t see through the window, didn’t quite want to if I’m honest, which I near enough always am. Wasn’t scared, I’d tell you if I was, I don’t mind that. Was something else. Never felt right creeping in that garden, everything was so clean. She didn’t even tend much to it, save the flowers, but everything grew in order, was like the world was trying to win her back.

She didn’t tolerate no visitors, Miss Wil. There were well wishers and all sorts at first, after, but only so long a wish stays well till it turns on someone else. Bringing her flowers, used to bother me ‘fore I knew why, but she had need for ‘em same as she had cause to lie. And I don’t think she liked ‘em chopped, see. I never spoke to her but I s’pose I got to know her pretty well lying in that garden. You get a feeling for someone when you arms and legs are all muddied up in their dirt, and I dwelled out there for a good few. My plan, much as I ever had one, was to help out, to fix up the grass and weeds by way of payment. She’d never know, see, think some fairy or some such had seen their way to tidying for her. But there never was much need for that what with the world trying to win her back. So I never felt quite right, and I stayed as far as I could, as I would let me.

But I like seeing. I never really ‘stood what she meant about the world. I mean I know there are bad things, like the shade an’ them other kids I heard but never seen. I heard other things too, I been in other gardens. So I know there’s bad in the world. But I never got wanting to lose seeing. Times I wanted away, wanted to try East or North, anything but South, but it’s seeing that kept me healthful more ‘n anything.

Some things I seen worse ‘n things I heard. But them things are gone now, drowned like that grass when the water came, time’s motion Doc said. I know South still there, there’s always South, but I don’t have to turn that way, and I don’t have to stop seeing. First I thought it was all South that went bad, but the more gardens I slept in, the more windows I looked through I got to thinking there’s a bit a South in all sorts. Not every garden’s like Mis Wil’s, see. There’s plenty I never felt least bit bad creeping in, or if I did was for different cause. More like I felt it creeping on me, grass all round my wrists and dirt dirtier and harder to wash.

I never washed so much as when I dwelled in Rothschurch. That garden all tangled up, stones poking up out the ground, showing where the dead ‘uns were. A few a’ them kids I ‘spect, the ones I never seen. I remembered the writing on one -Gamble showed me a bit a’ reading and I’s quick learner. Have to be. Old Gamble he says to me he’d never seen such a quick ‘un. Took him by surprise, I reckon, after he’d seen the scar and heard how I’d been living - never told him ‘bout South, never got to that - then I’m reading straight back to him what he’s only halfwards done teaching. He was a good teacher, never too prideful, always laughing when he got caught. There’s a lot I heard said ‘bout bank people, but far as I ever saw there’s much less bad said by ‘em than ‘bout ‘em.

So I remembered some of that stone writing. On the smallest stone, only ‘bout up to my belly and I never been a big ’un even ‘fore I got sick. Smallest of the litter they said, people always trying to get food in where it won’t go. Mightn’t a’ made it to the acres f’it weren’t for that.

Them nights at Rothschurch were the worst since I got out. Used to stare at that little stone all night wondering ‘bout them kids I never seen, ‘bout how comes the shade left me - most part anyway, skin was closer to the colour a’ those little dead stones than anyone else in the acres. Them kids I never seen, never seen me neither, best as I knew. So I got to reading that stone, got to thinking so hard ‘bout them kids that it was true, true as stone. Fixed it in my mind that there was one a’ them kids got taken by the shade laying right beneath me. Could even hear him breathing at night sometimes, when it was real quiet. Doc was maybe right, what he said about tripping yourself on symbols. I heard people speaking scared ‘bout those gardens where they plant stones, like the dead bear ‘em some kind a’ ill, but I slept sound knowing I had a friend wi’ me, just under the dirt.

An’ reading that stone helped keep my thoughts straight, helped me forget what was happening through them windows on the other side a’ the grass. I would’a slept somewhere else if I could, but once you got a dwell somewhere, no matter how rough, you sort’a get attached, like Doc said, start to thinking there’s nowhere else for you.

I seen the insects in that garden at Rothschurch, building burrows and mounds and suchlike. One time I had to sweep ‘em away where I was making to sleep, not that I wanted to - I like them little ‘uns, crawling round in the dirt, helping each other out, like little ‘uns more ‘n I like ‘most any like me. But they came back, whole new set of those little piles a’ dirt in the morning. Plenty other places they could a’ dwelled but they fixed on that one spot, and I s’pose so did I.

So I slept wi’ little ‘uns and my friend I got fixed under me an’ it weren’t so bad as it would a’ been.

But still, I knew it was happening. I tried to sweep it away like I swept those little ‘uns piles, but like the same it kept coming back, and the times I got to sleeping it came back there. Found a dwell in my head I s’pose. Knew I couldn’t stay - I think that’s the only way to break the fix you got on your home, when something else comes an’ breaks it for you, makes some part of it or you home for itself. But I couldn’t just leave. Scared as I was, I couldn’t just leave. South taught me a lot of things - stealing, hiding, quieting, most of all, I thought, how to run. But in Rothschurch I found out what South really taught me. How to be scared.

There they are, all lit up like them flies on the lake near old Gamble’s place. I just take a wash a’ my hands in the dust ‘fore I get to climbing the apex. Don’t like to get home wi’ my hands all slick and black. Can wash ‘em properly in town, Sizzen’s bound to let me use his bathroom, maybe even keep the barn a few more nights ‘fore I move on. But for now dust’ll do me - what’s good for birds is good for me. Sizzen’s been good to me, too good. I seen the faces of them ladies an’ young men in the town, ‘course they always smile an’ never wishing me no real harm, but his place been a lot emptier since word got out ‘bout me. I don’t blame ‘em, ‘spect I’d be no different given a few turns on the way, but I don’t like to see his business suffer, his stitching getting old on them mannequins in the window, not after the kindness he’s shown. He’d never send me out, not in some people’s nature, and it’ll hurt him when I go, but it’s for the best. I seen his face when the town ladies stopped dropping by, and I seen his plates getting bigger wi’ less food to cover ‘em. F’he had boys a’ his own I ‘spect he’d be hard pushed to feed ‘em all.

So I’ll get the oil off from between my fingers ‘fore I get back, make sure I don’t dirty up the cloth. Prettiest dresses I ever saw, girls and ladies come from all over, some even outside acres. Once told me he got one from North, from ‘cross the water, some rich sort, perfect white skin, like snow he said, but I never seen snow. I didn’t ask him though, I just listened. Never really had that before, always been my own voice, mostly, in my head, an’ Sizzen was a voice you could listen to all night even if you di’n’t ‘stand a word of it.

This lady from North, she was looking for something that would tell where she’d been so she wouldn’t have to, something made by real acre people. Rich can be like that, I seen as much good in them as anyone, sometimes all mixed up, but good nonetheless. She was wearing some sweet silver cloth when she come in, so Sizzen says, like nothing they got North, so she must a’ been all over ‘fore she got to us.

Hands are clean as they’re gonn’a get now. Better dust than oil. Camp says there’s nothing wrong with it but I seen other kids with great red blisters an’ scars on their skin, kids younger ‘n me. Its part a’ why I stopped staying there - after a while everything starts to stick, not just the oil. Even when there’s nothing between me and the night at least I’m away, can clean my hands off in the dust. Camp has a way of getting to you, telling you you have to stay, sticking you down on those hard little bunks. Remembered me a’ South see. I knew when I got there I’d have to find somewhere else soon as I could - gotten too used to having my own place to think and not think - so jus’ like before, I made sure I didn’t make too many friends, not that Camp made that easy if I’d a’ wanted to.

Can see the lights now. Best place I ever been since I got started, sixteen showed me the way. Was beat up, been running don’t know how long, seem like forever, seem like all I knew was running. Only I couldn’t run no more, in my head I was running but when I looked I was on the ground. An’ my legs wouldn’t move, all covered over wi’ the long grass and water at my back. Could hear it running somewhere near - water keeps running like that, never runs out - but I couldn’t see, couldn’t turn my head, and even if I could it would a’ been too dark. Jus’ laid on my back and let it take me in. First time I’d done that, listened to the water running somewhere and let it take me. Grass was so thick it felt like one a’ them beds you see wi’ colour all hanging down around it, and dark wood holding it up, like one a’ them for rich ladies. ‘Spect that one from North slept in a bed like that, all silk and soft, probably softer even than anything Sizzen stitched her.

So I’s listening to that water till I got to forgetting I was listening, and there were stars all lit up above. I seen them stars every night since I been running an’ ‘fore that even but I never had time to really pay ‘em much attention till then. All laid out on my back I just stared at them stars. I stared like that till they disappeared. Never noticed till the sun stuck its head up over the hill. Seeing things disappear’s same as seeing ‘em grow. When sun came up over that hill, was the first time I seen where I was, di’n’t even see the old dirt track till then, di’n’t even know it was there. So I got up, must a’ been something in that water at my back or the grass I’s laying on, ‘cause I felt like I’d been rested up a week. I never could tell if I’d fallen ‘sleep or not, looking up at them stars, all twinkling an’ shooting out starlight - don’t think I could’a dreamed anything prettier.

An’ that’s when I first saw ‘em. There weren’t always sixteen, you know. No, when I first saw ‘em there was one more, seventeen see. An’ f’it weren’t for them I might a’ just got to walking, carried on the way I’s going ‘fore I fell. I never took much to paths, easiest way to get yourself caught is on paths. But when I saw them twisted little bushes all lined up like that on the apex I had to go that way. Took it as a sign, see. Running’s like that, you get used to listening for hooves or water so as after a while signs are all you look for, an’ them bushes was the best I’d got.

I remember once, I’d been hiding out down by the trees south a’ bank. Been sticking there under that canopy for week or more. No one ever came there, was safest place I’d found for a good while, only there’s nothing much in the way a’ food. Hadn’t eaten for a few days, when I come across this thick brown tree, all on its own, no others like it anywhere, and I’d walked all through them trees, seen pretty much all there was to be seen. So I got to looking at that little tree, all on its own, and I thought ‘bout myself, I thought ‘bout how I’s the only one I got to think about or be thinking about me, and that little tree all alone, I felt like it was closest thing I’d had to a friend since I could remember. So I stayed there for a bit see, an’ I don’t mind saying I talked to that tree a good fair bit and sometimes it whispered back, in the wind, its little brown leaves all shaking soft. Then I saw, coming out its skin, right deep inside, where its arms came together, these near enough black shiny berries, colour a’ blood they were, real blood I mean. And I’d not been eating a good while, an’ what with this tree being a friend I got to thinking there’d be no harm in trying a few. Only I tried more ’n a few. That’s a thing I found since I got away, all the bad things in this world taste sweet at first - there are sweet things, I know, sweet things that don’t go bad - but that’s how the bad things get into you, by taking all the sweetness they got in ‘em for a whole lifetime, which ain’t a lot, an’ just putting it there together right at the start when you meet ‘em.

So after I ate them berries I was pretty sick. Not like at Doc’s sick, not like the shade, but in its way worse, just for less time. I was crawling and noising - that’s how bad it was, I was used to hiding, I’d go days without moving or making a sound f’I needed to, but my inside was all burning an’ I couldn’t even remember what it was I’s doing right while I’s doing it.

Anyways, after them berries I got to being careful ‘bout what signs I seen, I got to trusting myself less ‘n my nose and so when I saw them bushes up there on that old hill I knew it was something, I knew it was something what I thought I’d seen in that little brown tree down south a’ the bank. My nose it was taking myself with it when I walked up the apex that first time an’ I got to the sixteen, only it was seventeen then - I knew see, ‘cause first thing I did while I was walking was count ‘em, South made sure I knew counting, that an’ no more, di’n’t want you learning no tricks more ‘n you needed.

And then straight ahead ‘a me I seen all them lights. Far off at the end of the path, past where I couldn’t see it no more, but not too far off for someone who’s been running since South let him slip.

They was shining and all different colours, reminded me a’ being on my back listening to water. They were shooting out starlight. So really it was the sixteen brought me to town, and what made me realise not all signs are bad ‘uns or berries that taste sweet but make you sick. Not like Doc said. You just gott’a use your nose. Then not everyone got a nose taught to sniff out hooves and water.

Xan Ti
Giovanni Frate