The two ragged men walked in different directions.
They met on a well-worn trail by the side of a slow moving river which meandered through an overgrown meadow. Reeds rose up through the green algae covered water. On the far bank the branches of a dead willow dipped with forlorn grace.
Each man caught sight of a silhouette; a flitting shadow in a world of night that took human form.
The two men stopped. Neither could move. The river stood on one side and the unknown of the tall grass of the meadow on the other. All that lay before them and behind them was the path.
They looked at each other in earnest.
One of the men was tall and wiry. Hidden beneath the layers of tattered and torn clothing that kept him warm were slender arms and legs.
The other man was short and stocky, broad shouldered with hands half the size again of most.
The taller man wore the remnants of what must have been a long coat. He had something in his hand that he tucked away quickly.
The stocky man pretended not to notice and nodded in greeting.
The tall man asked, ‘Where you headed?’
‘Thought I saw something down this way.’
‘Not unless you can fly. It was up there.’ The stocky man pointed upwards into the night.
‘What kind of something?’
‘A bird. Maybe an owl. Too dark to be sure.’
‘Dead as yesterday. First to die when the night came down. There ain’t nothing up there.’
‘Maybe that’s so. What about you?’
‘Keeping on the move. If you let me by, I’ll be on my way.’
‘Nothing back there worth going to.’ The stocky man stood his ground. ‘What you got stashed away in your coat?’
The taller man backed away. He looked down at the listless river. He thought about jumping in. The decaying willow with its branches reaching into the water looked like a giant skeletal hand. The river spoke death and said little else. ‘I don’t want no trouble,’ he said and took a further step backwards. The reeds deceptively hid the real edge of the river bank and the tall man started to tumble. As his arms flailed the stocky man grabbed him and pulled him back to the path.
The stocky man let go and backed away holding his hands up. ‘I don’t want trouble either.’
The taller man nodded his thanks but said, ‘Why’d you want to rob me?’
‘Rob you? I saved you,’ the other man said.
‘Why you so keen to know what’s in my pocket?’
‘Could be a knife. I let you pass and the next thing I know there’s a piece of steel sticking out of me.’
‘Told you I don’t want no trouble.’
‘Truth and lies are much the same these days.’
The impasse of distrust held them both in silence.
A slight breeze swayed the wild grasses of the meadow. A soft rustling sound of life delicately pushed back the silence towards the river.
The stocky man nodded as if in some way he was answering the meadow’s call. ‘If I wanted to do you harm I could have let you fall in that sorry looking river. Doesn’t that count for anything?’
‘Counts for a nod of thanks which you got. What was it you said earlier? Bout truth n lies? Actions the same. You save me or the thing I got in my pocket?’
‘I could have just reached in and took. Instead I grabbed your hand.’
The tall man shook his head, ‘Haven’t known you for long but you’re cautious. Say it is – which it ain’t – a knife in my pocket. Say that blades pointing upwards to stop tearing anymore holes in these rags. Anyone tries to grab that blade… well they’re likely to get their fingers sliced. A cautious man would know that.’
‘Cautious is better than stubborn.’
‘You think I ain’t cautious? How bout you? Been a long time since the night fell. A man don’t survive this long without things stashed away. What’s that by your side? What’s that you got there?’
‘Nothing that I’m hiding.’ The stocky man pulled out a battered and torn leather satchel from beneath his layers of rags. ‘I got things.’
‘Satchel. That’s a damn big pocket. Good place for a damn big knife.’
The wind stirred itself again; stronger, more purposeful. The tall grasses of the meadow leant towards the two men and brushed against them in gentle caresses. The reeds on the river bank tottered on the precipice. Their stems arching towards the bleak deadness of the algae covered water. The branches of the willow lifted slightly; the skeletal hand drawing back its fingers in readiness.
Both men shivered.
The stocky man looked down at the ground. His foot kicked at some dry and broken sticks and twigs. ‘Getting cold. Looks like neither of us is going to budge. How about we make a fire? There’s enough dry material on this path to act as kindling. If you could walk back down your path and gather some bigger sticks. There’s some stones back down my way. Stones are good for keeping the heat in. We can get a fire going. Can’t go round it due to the river. No one’s getting through that meadow without cutting it down. You’ll be on one side of the fire, me on the other. Maybe then we can sit down and talk. Reach an understanding.’
The tall man thought about the proposition. ‘No tricks?’ he said.
‘You got matches?’
‘No, but I know how to start a fire by rubbing two old dry sticks together. It takes a little while, but it’ll work. Wood should be dry enough, been days since the last rain. We got a deal?’
The tall man nodded.
They worked together as best they could. One gathered stones and kindling; nothing more than dry bits of withered life. One gathered larger sticks. Neither man crossed the divide of the fire site. When one stepped up to lay down his burden the other backed away. They kept working with an estranged togetherness until there was a pile nearly two foot high.
‘Should be enough to burn for a few hours. We’ll add to it as needs be. You going to let me light this thing?’ the stocky man said.
The tall man backed away.
The stocky man went to his satchel.
‘Hey what you doing? You said no tricks,’ the tall man said.
‘That’s what I meant too.’ The stocky man reached inside his satchel and very slowly pulled out a small rectangular piece of wood. ‘I’ll throw it gently. Get ready to catch.’ True to his word he very gently threw the piece of wood over to the tall man.
The tall man caught it. He turned it over in his hands feeling it with his fingers. It was a simple piece of planed wood, rectangular in shape, with a circular depression about the size of a small coin carved into the middle. ‘It’s just a piece of wood.’
‘Throw it back then and let me get this fire started.’
The tall man did as asked.
The stocky man arranged the stones in a circle, and stood the longer sticks up leaning in towards the middle. The kindling he stuffed into the heart of the stone circle. He laid the rectangular piece of wood onto the path so the circular depression was facing upwards. Taking two of the straightest driest sticks he could find he placed the ends into the small depression. Holding the two sticks in place firmly between the palms of his hands he started to rub his hands together vigorously.
They were just sticks of wood; two identical items but each unique. The difference between them caused friction, and from the friction there was a chance of change. At some point, when the time was right, a hot vapour of fine dust would rise up. It all depended on the stocky man. In the daytime of the old world he would have seen the right moment, but in the ever-present darkness he only had instinct to guide him. If he stopped too soon he’d have to start again and each attempt would be harder than the last.
The wind in its fickle nature taunted him. It shifted and shimmied around him changing direction like only the wind can. As best he could he shuffled his position trying to shield his efforts from the billowing breeze. Every turn the man made the wind countered and now it settled its position in a single direction. The only way for the stocky man to shield his efforts from the wind was to turn his back on the tall man.
The fire site stood between them but it was no barrier to a blow across the head. He looked at the tall man. Had he moved? Had he shuffled closer? The gathering of the kindling had removed all the dry twigs from the path. He wouldn’t hear the other man if he approached him. Can I trust him? Dare I trust him?
A creaking sound came from the other side of the bank. He thought about the dead willow tree with its gnarled and twisted branch reaching into the river. The stocky man shifted his position so his back was facing the other man. He closed his eyes and continued to rub his hands together furiously. Time seemed to freeze. Perspiration formed in his palms. He felt a momentary wisp of heat rising up and touching his fingers. He dropped the sticks and grabbed a handful of kindling. Holding the kindling against the depression in the wood he gently blew down, and a single spark of orange light flitted into being. He blew again and this time there were more sparks, and then a single flame. He cupped the slowly burning kindling in his hands and pushed the burning mass into the fire site. The dried twisted wood crackled as the fire devoured it. The two men said nothing. Each was happy to bathe in the warm embrace. Embers danced like fireflies flittering into the night sky.
The tall man broke the silence. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
The light allowed them to see each other, really see each other, for the first time. One was aquiline, the other sanguine.
‘We should start with names,’ the tall man said.
‘Names?’ The stocky man laughed. ‘Do you think they matter anymore?’
‘Makes for easy conversation. I’m Tom.’
‘Names are from the old world. I’m not sure they have a place anymore.’
‘Aw crap. You’re a thinker. Names is names. Don’t complicate what ain’t broken,’ said Tom.
‘You trying to tell me you survived this long without thinking?’ said the stocky man.
‘Too much thinking messes with a man’s head. Makes you look for things that ain’t there. Like owls. Instinct. That’s what keeps you alive,’ said Tom.
The fire crackled in response but the stocky man stayed silent.
‘Tell you what. You tell me what your name is and I’ll show you what’s in my pocket,’ said Tom.
The stocky man believed what he believed and names were as dead as the river behind him. But the contents of Tom’s pocket had him curious. Was it a knife? Was it something else? Maybe it was nothing? The fire was there to protect him. ‘Yeah, okay you got a deal. But the old names are gone. I’m gonna give myself a new name. Name’s Reed after those reeds growing on the bank there.’
‘Reed. I like that,’ said Tom.
‘What you got in your pocket?’
Tom chuckled. His hand delved inside the layers of rags that passed for clothing, and he pulled out a cylindrical object. ‘Tin of beans,’ Tom said.
Reed didn’t mean to. Not intentionally. But he lurched forwards. The reaction of a hungry man. The heat of the fire pushed him back.
Tom laughed. ‘Good idea, that fire.’ Tom just kept on laughing. He couldn’t help himself. Tears ran down his cheeks.
The willow withdrew its withered hand. The meadow swayed in rhythm to the chuckling laughter.
Tom wiped the tears from his face smudging black dirt across his cheeks. He started taking deep breaths to compose himself. ‘Your… your face. Haven’t laughed… oh, God. That was just a pict… ,” he said and stopped abruptly when he saw what Reed was holding.
‘How’d you get that?’ he asked.
‘From my big pocket,’ replied Reed.
Tom stood up transfixed. He tried to move forward but the heat from the fire kept him at bay.
‘Hey, I thought this was funny,’ said Reed.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you had a tin opener you son of a bitch?’
‘Same reason you didn’t tell me about the beans.’
Tom scratched his head. Shuffled his feet. But he never took his eyes off the tin opener. ‘Throw it over here and I’ll share the beans,’ said Tom.
‘Throw the beans over here and I’ll share the beans,’ said Reed.
‘You’re a pig headed mule,’ said Tom.
‘You’re a stubborn ass,’ said Reed.
‘You think I need that tin opener? I don’t need your tin opener. I can get to these beans,’ said Tom.
‘How you gonna do that?’ Reed said.
‘Stones. I’ll find some stones. I’ll smash my way into the beans.’
‘Sure you could. And how many of them beans you gonna lose? How much dirt and grit gonna find itself into that tin?’
Tom didn’t say anything, not immediately. The indecision played across his features.
‘Goddammit! Half each,’ said Tom.
‘Sounds fair. Throw the tin over and I’ll get it open,’ said Reed.
‘My beans. I get to go first. Throw me over that damn opener,’ said Tom.
The two men were back at square one; discontent and distrust separated them just as much as the fire burning away on the path.
‘We got to trust each other, Tom,’ said Reed.
‘Agreed. Trust me first and I’ll trust you,’ said Tom.
Reed kicked the ground. ‘We can use that can afterwards.’
‘What sort of a dumbass comment is that? You think I’m stupid.’
‘Never said no such thing. You like tea?’
The question caught Tom unawares. He preferred coffee, but just the mention of an ordinary simple thing had him thinking back to the old world. Back then his morning always started with a cup of tea. Weather permitting he’d stand in his garden looking at the beautiful deep red fuchsias, and the kaleidoscopic varieties of gladioli. Colour; that was one of the things he missed the most. ‘Tea?’
‘Yeah, tea. What’s up with you? You like tea?’
‘You tellin me you got tea?’
‘You ever had birch sap tea?’
‘Birch sap… birch sap… you tellin me you got tea or not?’
‘There’s a silver birch back down the path behind me. Not far. I could use the empty tin to catch the sap and make some tea.’
‘You tempt a man with tea. Then you knock him down. Birch sap ain’t tea.’
‘You can make tea with the sap. The sap’s sweet. You put some leaves into it. The leaves bring the sweetness down, and you heat it up. You want some or not? The price is half a tin of beans, and you get half the tea.’
‘This stuff nice?’
‘Better than nice.’
‘Who goes first?’
‘I need the empty tin. Makes sense for me to have the second half. We got to trust each other, Tom. You ready to catch this tin opener?’
Reed threw the opener.
Tom caught it and wasted no time in opening the tin. He completely removed the top. He licked the underside of the tin lid not to waste any precious food. The jagged edges of the torn metal scraped across his tongue.
‘There’s a spoon in there too,’ said Reed.
Tom looked down at the open tin of beans and frowned.
‘The opener it’s one of those multi-tools. It folds away. The opener. There’s a spoon in there too.’
Tom had been pre-occupied with the beans. He hadn’t given the opener a second thought, he’d just used it. He put the beans down, and looked at the implement in his hand.
‘Multi-tool. Looks like a Swiss army knife to me.’
‘Does it matter what we call it?’
‘You had a knife all along.’ Tom folded the opener away. He started opening up some of the other attachments and stopped when he pulled out a blade.
The fire crackled.
The wind stirred. The willow lifted its hand.
‘You were worried about me, but you. You! You had the knife all along.’ Tom pointed the blade at Reed. The flames of the fire in the darkness reflected along the blade giving it a shimmering orange hue.
‘Most important thing is what I decided to do with the knife. I gave it to you.’
Tom stared at his hand. His fingers tightly gripped around the knife handle. The tip of the blade pointed directly at Reed. Tom couldn’t say anything. The lines on his face told a story of a man lost in his thoughts.
Reed read the lines and knew it was prudent to stay silent.
Tom sat down on the path. “Sorry. Been a long time since I met anyone,” said Tom. He folded the blade away, and pulled out the spoon. He picked up the beans. He held the tin underneath his nose and inhaled. His lips quivered at the scent. He ate his first spoonful slowly, carefully, avoiding the temptation to devour the beans quickly. His eyes closed as the taste exploded in his mouth. He waited before he asked, ‘How’d you know all this stuff? Fires and tea.’
‘When it happened. When they were telling us to stay indoors. I went to the library.’
‘Was it bad?’
‘Not then. The fights were outside the supermarkets. All I had was silence and knowledge. Read like crazy. Bushcraft, farming, survivalist stuff.’
‘How long before you had to run?’
‘Soon as the power went. They came in just a few at first. Grabbing as many books as they could. One guy knew it was wrong. He kept looking at me. Kept repeating, “We gotta heat our homes, gotta stay warm.” All that knowledge gone to ash.’
Tom had been eating the beans as he listened. ‘You try and stop em?’
Reed looked at Tom through a shimmering heat haze. ‘What would your instinct tell you to do?’
‘Took a couple of the most practical bushcraft books, and went back home. Found the wife dead. Buried her. Planed that block of wood and took off with a few things. Far away from the cities and towns as I could get.’
‘Someone kill your wife?’
‘Diabetic. Guess she didn’t want to face the new world. Injected herself with a whole bottle of insulin. Painless, for her. That much insulin sends you into a coma. You don’t wake up.’
Tom nodded. ‘You want half a tin of beans?’
‘Throw em over.’
The flames rose to about waist height. The heat haze shimmered higher still, and carried the heat of the fire with it. The beans would have to be thrown.
‘Be careful now,’ said Reed.
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Throw em gently but high. Straight up so the tin stays upright. You can do that right?’
‘Just you get ready to catch. You ready?’
‘Ready,’ said Reed.
Tom threw the tin in a high arc.
Reed held his breath and watched the tin sail through the air. When it landed safely between the palms of his outstretched hands he exhaled and closed his eyes. The Swiss army knife came next. Reed looked inside the can eager to see what Tom’s definition of half looked like. He needn’t have worried. Reed started to eat and talk, ‘What’s your story? Got a wife? When you last see somebody else?’
‘Divorced. Took some supplies and headed into the countryside.’
‘What about others? You seen many others?’ Reed asked again.
‘Less and less. And… I don’t know… there’s some I don’t want to see.’
Tom didn’t answer and looked around him at the tall grasses of the meadow, the crackling spitting fire, the dead river with its coat of algae, and the grasping reach of the willow. He looked up into the veil of night. ‘I miss the beauty more than the heat. When the sun rose in the morning. Shimmering across water. You think it’s coming back?’ Tom asked.
‘You can see it some days. A circular pale shadow. Stare right at it as if it was nothing. Some light gets through or we wouldn’t be here.’
‘Not everything’s still here.’
‘No… No, you’re right. Old man willow hasn’t fared too well. I don’t think much could live in that river. The algae must be taking oxygen from the water. The reeds are surviving although they’ve barely grown. I guess this is natural selection.’
‘The meadow seems to be thriving,’ said Tom.
They both looked at the thick dense wild grasses which were about eight foot high.
‘Look at that grass. It’s not how it used to be. Those books I read. They said there were hundreds of different varieties. Maybe this was one type that never grew well in the old world. Died off quickly as there was too much sunlight, and now it’s thriving. It’s starting to grow everywhere. If you touch the stuff it’s different. It’s like grass but not like grass. I’ve seen a few of these meadows. They’re starting to spring up everywhere. I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t try to cut a new path through it.’
Tom was distant. Lost in his thoughts. ‘You gonna make that tea?’
Reed was hesitant at first but then nodded. He walked off back down the way he came, and dwindled into the night.
Tom watched him go and contemplated whether he himself should stay or go. The events that unfolded the last time he’d been in contact with other people still haunted him. The memory caused a short stab of pain across his forehead. He held up his hand as if to brush the pain away. He felt for scars but the external scars had long since healed.
Tom thought about the tea, the fire, and the man called Reed. The wind gusted. The willow creaked as if the branches of its drooping hand were going to give way. But it was Tom who turned and walked away.
Once the incision had been made deep into the trunk Reed held up a leaf to give the sap a funnel to run down into the empty tin. The lack of light made it hard for him to see, but the increasing weight of the tin gave him a good indication that he had the sap he needed. He pulled some of the leaves off the silver birch and tore them up with his fingers before dropping them into the tin.
A chill assailed Reed. He thought about the comforting warmth of the fire and yet that same thought stopped him in his tracks. What happens when the fire dies? Reed felt the cold steel of the Swiss army knife in the palm of his hand. Would the knife become an issue? I, no we, need the knife. What happens when the fire dies? A breeze sallied from the river. The chill increased and the steel became colder still. Reed made his decision. He placed the blade back into the incision in the silver birch. He brought his foot down sharply on the body of the knife, and the blade snapped.
A shadow, darker than the silhouettes all around him, passed overhead.
‘Tom.’ Reed approached the fire glad to be back in the warmth. ‘Hey, Tom! You asleep back there?’ The only response came from the crackling fire, and Reed knew then that Tom had gone. He sat down and put his head in his hands, as moment after moment passed by. ‘Crap,’ he spat the word out.
‘You want one of them you head back down that path. Come back when you’re done,’ said a returning Tom.
‘Tom! I thought…’
Tom interrupted. ‘Told you thinking messes with your head. That ain’t a tin a beans anymore. Don’t matter how you throw it that tea’ll spill. Been making a lid best I could.’ Tom held up a small object. ‘Got some sticks. Threaded some of these reeds between them to hold it together. If you wedge it in to the top of the tin it should stop most of the tea escaping.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ Reed said.
‘That’s because you’re a thinker. Thinkers never do think of anything. Here, catch.’ Tom threw the lid. ‘Get that tea brewing.’
Reed did. Tom’s improvised lid worked and the two men talked; learning more, and more, about one another. Reed talked freely. Tom did too, but at times he stayed silent and became lost in his own reverie. Sometimes he just changed the subject. Reed didn’t mind.
‘Where you going? When the fire’s gone, where you going?’ asked Reed.
‘What about you?’ replied Tom.
‘Been thinking for a while that the only way forward is something different.’
‘You want to cut through that meadow?’
‘There’s life there look at it. What have the old paths got to offer?’
‘Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we don’t have a right. Not much point in a new path that’s paved with the sins of old stones.’
Reed stayed quiet. He looked at his surroundings. The towering wall of grass. The creeping river. The grasping hand of the willow. The living yet stunted reeds. And he felt the wind that weaved its way between them all. ‘Do you know who first climbed Everest?’ asked Reed.
‘What?’ the question caught Tom off balance.
‘Everest. Who got there first?’ Reed could tell that Tom wasn’t going to answer so he repeated himself, ‘Everest.’
‘You’re the one who read all the books.’
‘I don’t… wait… it begins with H. Hardy, Headley, maybe Healy.’
‘Hillary. Sir Edmund Hillary. He did something no living person had ever done before. Roger Bannister was the first to run a mile under four minutes. They had one thing in common. Conviction, absolute no holds barred conviction.’
‘That birch sap must be alcoholic.’
‘We do the same thing. We carve out a new path right through that meadow. But we remember every sorry mistake man ever made and we do it differently. All those sins get left behind. Maybe we’ll find others. Maybe others will follow.’
‘You think up that crazy stuff?’
‘Look behind you. That’s the alternative.’
It took a while but eventually Tom nodded.
Reed looked up at the never ending obsidian night with relief and sighed.
‘Wait a minute. Hold on. What you looking up there for? If you’re going all Jesus on me I’m off right now.’
Reed laughed, ‘No, no Jesus. But earlier… I thought I saw something up there.’
‘It ain’t no owl. Owls are dead.’
Reed continued looking up at the night.
‘You think you can bring them back don’t you? I’ll do your path. I’ll help but you need to limit this thinking. Or you’ll end up as crazy as this bat shit world. Deal?’
Reed smiled, ‘Deal.’
‘And if by any chance there is an owl out there, it’s always been there. Now, throw me the knife. I’ll take first shift.’
‘Knife? It… it broke. Blade snapped clean off.’
There was only a slight pause before Tom said, ‘Pass the rest of the knife over.’
Tom took the Swiss army knife and re-opened the tin opener. He worked on the edge of the tin. It was harder this time. He had to work through the lip of the tin which was thicker. When he’d finished there were two slits about two centimetres in length running into the body of the tin. He picked up the discarded tin lid from earlier and wedged it into the two slits. Then he did his best with the opener to wedge the lid into its new position. ‘What do you think? It’s not exactly a circular saw, but we can hold the tin and the serrated edge of the tin lid should cut through.’
‘I think its genius.’
A single ray of light came in the form of an owl. It landed on the freshly beaten path behind Reed and Tom. Using its talons and its beak it tore up the broken grass the two men left in their wake. The owl carried it back to the nest it had made in the dilapidated roof of an old barn. The three owl chicks were grateful of the extra warmth. They snapped at the grass at first hoping it might be food.
Their mother left them again. Instinct took her back to the meadow. She didn’t know that the two big creatures were men, but she saw the path they were making getting longer.
Small rodents, with their habitat disturbed, ran out in panic across the beaten path the two men were carving. The owl watched and she knew the scurrying rodents offered survival for herself and her hatchlings. She descended with the swiftness of a hunter.
Had Tom and Reed seen the owl Tom would have said that it was always there only hidden from view. He would have said that the new path and the owl were nothing more than coincidence.
Reed would have contemplated the significance of actions and consequences. He would have kept his thoughts to himself out of a growing respect for Tom.
The truth was something that lay behind them, and ahead of them, in the ghosts of yesterday and in the hopes of a new tomorrow.
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