“Will you stop doing that?” she cried. He wrenched it back from her hand, turning his yellow stare on his brother as the latter yanked the pack away from him.
"Thi'ii sai'inae ra'ana." the intruder sneered with scathing emphasis, lifting the hood of his sweatshirt. “Nai’il a’ si hahdri. Ae ishah esai sai’inae il’avani sha siith la’anith’le si alujha liis’ala nya.” He strode away into the darkness from which he had arrived.
Still mazed, Susan stooped to gather up what she could find of her scattered belongings.
"Fucking hell... what was that?"
"You can smell that stuff a long way out..." William admitted reluctantly, holding out her bag as she replaced its inventory.
"Mardy bastard. He didn't think I'd show up, did he?" she insisted, glancing at him, and then in the direction the offender had taken. He shook his head while she straightened out and huffed a weary sigh.
At the bottom of the ridge another rise marked an abrupt shift in vegetation, leaving behind the gentler deciduous character of the lower hills. A nameless conifer stood in infinite swathes of barely-varied repetition, its thin craquelure bark rendered in bruised cyan by both the hour and the vapor laced about them, lower limbs atrophied by shade into barbed and naked quills. She followed William carefully, ducking the jutting tinder while he turned from a game trail to cut across the slope.
“How do you know where we’re going?” She projected the whisper over the sound of her own shuffling footfalls.
"We're following two hundred and seventy-five pounds of bad attitude and it’s not exactly hiding its light under a schnitzel.” he advised. Narrowing her eyes, she stared hard over the incline in a vain attempt to mark the evidence to which he referred. William nodded down at the ground beside his bare feet; she took out her torch, passing it over the dead needles, a series of faint, slurred scuffs in the litter coming together in almost magical association at his suggestion.
The hill rose to the north in a lopsided fashion, exposing a cliff like a diadem of rifted black stone that stared away over their heads toward the south. A tangle of fingerling rivulets rushed down through fissures underfoot, the clay refusing the trees' questing roots and forcing them on broad, veining forays. Their branches gathered the mist and released it as fickle precipitation, dropping on her head and into the collar of her parka and she put the pen light between her teeth, freeing her hands to negotiate the treacherous going. In William's silence she became aware of her own toiling progress and halted, embarrassed, only to shriek aloud at the whooshing shape of a bird, its undercarriage ghosting suddenly from the darkness as it grasped a neighbouring branch. Its pupils shrank in their gilded orange grounds when her light struck its face.
“Eye od, iss ah ow.” she cried, torch still clutched between her teeth. The great bird clapped its beak and regarded them with skepticism beneath two wildly-feathered tufts, like the upswept, autonomous brows of some aged academic. William uttered a clicking, onomatopoeic version of its remarks and was rewarded with a flare of densely-barred wings, their intricate, striated beauty couched in bisque and dusty brown. Susan's smile was answered by his own, his eyes closing against the light she swung into his face. She chuckled, though her grin fell to a frown as the beam pushed past him through mist that had drawn back in floating shreds from the way ahead; she set off after the glimpsed impression, catching each trunk in turn to keep her footing.
The feeble beam jumped over the deer trail, then a pair of filthy, mud-streaked jeans and she started backward, slowing her scrambling retreat when the figure remained in its curious association with the trunk of a wayside pine. With the torch aimed at the ground she discovered army boots pasted with clay where their toes had been dragged, the ploughing trail concluding behind them and confused by a scurried blurring of the mud to either side. Susan drew a girding breath and passed light over the shape cosseted inside a makeshift suite of winter garments. Alive, the stranger had been dark-haired and strongly-built; an army-issue anorak swathed the body beneath the point where it hung from the stump of a branch, unseen face crushed against the trunk. The splintered wood thrust through the left eye protruded wetly from the rear of the skull, parting hair like some inverted facial feature. She looked away, and then leant over, awaiting any reaction her stomach might have reserved.
“Kala'amātya's not that fancy.” William promised. Though her eyes would have seemed black to her own gaze, he could find no shelter from their stern indigo detail, and leant back on a tree, the pack squeaking against the bark. “It’s... old school.” he offered.
“I can see that.”
“Have a gun...” He handed her the pistol from the back of his trousers.
"I don't think it helped him." Susan murmured, staring with a new intent through the transient brume, the naked boles surrounding them like the pillars of some endless concourse. The ground was clammy and unwelcome underneath her as she sat down in a hunch. "You said there wouldn't be anyone out here."
"There wasn't, last time." he sighed. In studying the lifeless figure she found little to deter her from the details of its misfortune despite the chill settling around them, soaked through with the lean grey smell of ashes in the encircling darkness, as though the trees dreamed of their own deaths. She held up a hand, William helping her to her feet and following the lead that she assumed.
A half-mile through the pines brought them to the end of their unnerving exclusivity, at a place where the cliff allowed room for another of the broad, sloughed hollows where a huge scale of clay had once slid clear. At its far corner stood a structure hewn out of raw wood, its sagging silvered walls and low, round beams studded with branch stubs so that it seemed some sinister contrivance by the trees themselves. Water struck its bark and sod roof from the limbs overhead. William handed her the pack, knowing its weight would slow her and used the delay to inspect the hovel on his own.
Another male corpse lay crumpled in camouflage drab beneath the dripping eaves. The figure's symmetry had been ruined by a beating that had snapped its longest bones and caved the ribs on either side of its spine, leaving the bloodsoaked parka to settle in the novel hollows. The stranger's looped and serpentine innards had been ripped through a wound in his left flank; by the debris that they had gathered in their glistening swags, William guessed the man had trailed them for some time over rough ground. He shook his head gravely at Susan's approach, nodding toward the corner of the hut as an alternative.
To her surprise a tiny fire, little more than a half-dozen burning cones, hissed against a ring of damp stones in the lee of the hovel, a can of red beans simmering on the flames, its sooted label emblazoned with cyrillic characters. In her intent upon the hearth she was startled again by a broken moan from the foot of the wall, where another stranger sat before the stones, blond and many days unshaven, wearing the lower half of his army fatigues beneath a plagiarized football shirt of bloodstained red and dirty white. A golden saint gleamed on a chain around his neck, over blurry tattoos of mingled sharks and pudgy birds. The dry timber used to batter his companion had been split and driven through his thighs into the ground beneath, pinning him irrevocably. Very little blood had issued from the pinched and bulging wounds, packed so tightly with torn fabric and intruding wood that they offered no hope of palliative haemorrhage, though the smell leaking into the underlying clay answered streaks of septic colour inside his trousers. She walked to the furthest edge of the firelight while William questioned him in careful Russian, at which the man spat, replying in his own tongue.
“He's Ukranian, the others were locals... running deserter candy down from Lviv.” he told Susan, lifting the beans off the fire and setting them down beside her. She squatted with her back to the smuggler, too oppressed to pertain much more to his condition. Hunger overcame disgust and dug the spoon from her pack, the beans warm and saline in her mouth as she shoveled them in.
“Is that old school?” she muttered.
"It's dujju nahat... the coward’s death. He must have tried to run.”
"From who?" William looked out into the trees; the silence confirmed her worst suspicions, stilling her spoon in the can.
Her stare flew to Edward as the latter walked into the feeble glow, a box of ammunition beneath his arm. He set his burden down, took the can from her hands and walked around the hearth toward the smuggler, stooping to wave the smell toward the hungry man; the prospect roused him and he reached for them, careless of the pain incurred. Edward questioned him bluntly and repaid his grunting denial by removing the beans and dropping them once more beside Susan, where they tipped sideways.
"If this is alujha, can you not... talk to them or something?" she proposed. William shook his head, gazing around them.
"They're not like Caleb and Annick... they're jihādī crews, from all over. If you're not on a lunar cycle, siith el'la ai'ev si se'lae." He brought his hands together then waved them apart in an expression of the fatal, absolutist sentiment he described. "Alujha live and breathe their hahdris, their naján... if they lose them, they're fucked, and that's what's happening. Everyone's losing their land. The cartels won't help them, so... they either end up eating a ten gauge in a squat somewhere or fighting for whatever's left... places like this. Only the psychos survive."
Susan spoke despairingly to herself, letting her head fall into her arms.
“Who gets the branch through the face and who gets the sticks through the legs?”
"I can take you back into town..."
“You saw those oiks on the plane... that place is as bad as out here.” The sun had begun to thin the failing mist and granted sequined lustre to every drop of water gathered by the trees, though its doubtful beauty did not engage her.
"What is he doing?" she demanded, of Edward's silence. William glanced at him.
"Running the numbers. A dozen of them, two of us, one of you... three days before the full...”
Susan studied their subject in the light of the unwelcome logistics, the shift in his aspect impressing her deeply. The fire had eaten away the twigs and cones and had settled into a pile of pulsing red brands, the colour painted on the surface of his gaze, and she scoured his heedless countenance while the brutal mechanics of expediency absorbed him. He had shed the skin she barely knew, emerging raw and altered from the violence of that secret process, his scattered landmarks, mapped at such great cost, riven and abolished. He startled her again by skirting the fire and stooping to haul the smuggler upright by his collar, opening with an oblique motion of his left hand the man’s unguarded throat, cutting easily through the soft complex of veins and tendons. Blood fled the cursive wound in a silky-looking mass as his victim pitched sideways, eyes dimmed, waxy scalp glowing through his dirty hair. She tucked her head against her shoulder, drawing up her knees.
"Shoot him or something...”
“It’s too loud.” William assured her. “And you never have to do that twice.”
Edward exchanged his rifle for the dead man's superior Russian model and threw the latter’s side arms away into the trees where he had hidden the scrambled elements of the other smuggled ordinance. Susan glowered up at him as he stood examining the action of his stolen weapon.
"You might as well have stayed in Commoriom Drive and gotten paid to fucking murder people." she told him. His eyes pulled focus at her remark; he reached over the fire to seize her, dragging her though her boots ploughed through the sparking hearth, sweeping coals onto the foot of her pack. He marched her swiftly past the shack to the body of the beaten smuggler despite the ferocity of her objections and bent down to tear the coat from the corpse, substantially uncovering its stiffly mottled form. With his fist grasping her collar he made sure she had gained her fill of all that it had suffered before and after death, that the invidious details had found a home behind the gaze she shuttered tightly.
"You are female... you can only dream of ending up like this if these alujha find you." he told her, disuse lending his voice the clarity of new glass. Susan shoved back at him, pulling free and almost tripping over the body's broken legs as William came at his brother, having beaten the embers from her pack. Edward took an uncontested blow, shouldered him aside and quit them, pausing to reclaim the few items he had left by the fire on his way east.
The thin warmth of the morning’s first unimpeded rays struck her face as they emerged from the edge of the pines and climbed downward over ground sloping steeply and unevenly. Thistles pricked through the legs of her jeans as she made her own way to the narrow, sunken curvature of another river, walled on its far side by a towering scarp of forest. The water was an explicit demarcation between the cline behind them, long accustomed to incursion, and primal, unchallenged arborea; its stalwarts crowded right to the edge of the far bank, too starkly massive for the axe, the proud volunteers on the clearing beyond scions of a puissant archetype, its league-long shadow creeping backward with the sun's ascent. Where the ground rose from the root-sewn cut two sauropodian spruce stood abreast of one another, long, pale staffs of light dropping through their heads into the depths of the water beneath. Branches sawn from their pointed crowns had left vacancies exposing the thickly-crusted trunks where the bark had been adzed from two great discs of naked, whey-pale wood, forming totem eyes that glared across the river. Their scale and foreboding import served its hostile edict well. Monstrous plumes of fern, twining bindweed and other supple subordinates choked their feet as though in worshipful rapture, trailing their roots and whiplike greenwood in the river.
Edward stood at its edge. She turned from staring up at the íve to study him in the same mercenary earnest, sitting down on a stone to do so.
"So through all this, there's a pile of rocks crawling with rats with our name on it?" Susan inquired, her appraisal concluded.
"I don't think too many rats would bother with it." William admitted.
"If we weren't staring down the barrel of a full moon, I'd say... five easy days, but we are, so you'll have to do it in three.” The wind came up around the river bend and swept a pall of corrugation across its surface, moving the dry grass against their legs.
“What if we don’t get there in time?"
"Sai ilsii nais ii'syln si sa'ilya." Edward observed unexpectedly, prompting her to look back to his brother.
"He said you won't survive the night."
Brushing the dust from her water bottle, she lifted what remained in it to her lips.
"Anything else I should know?"
William edged a pile of little stones into a berm with his bare toes.
“Just the usual rural bullshit... if the weather turns, we could be forced to sit out a month, and you’ve got food for maybe two weeks. That's not a dealbreaker... you can eat flesh and there's plenty around. But if something happens to you, there's no opiates, no antibiotics.” he explained. "Sorry, cloudcheeks..."
"It's not your fault." Susan sighed. "I should have brought some."
“If I have to make a run for pharms with these alujha fucksticks in the way, it’d be forty eight hours, minimum, and you’ll be left chewing wood with that there tap dancing on your fucking morale.” he added, nodding at his brother.
"He doesn't speak English any more." she reminded him. They shared a private smile.
"It's the distance, more than anything. Three days... it's not enough time.”
Her dark, dry eyes caught Edward’s gaze.
“There you go... it might not be a dead loss. I might not make it, and I'll probably break something trying. I could be begging you to shoot me in twenty four hours, so don't bother looking like I'm the one who'll get you fucking killed." She turned back to William. "Do you think he's ever wondered why he's out here on his own?"
Dissent lapsing, he waited while she hauled herself to her feet and walked with him to the water’s edge. She knelt to fill their bottles and slake her thirst; to her surprise, her two companions began to shed their packs and weapons, then their uppermost items of clothing, descending to their knees beside the river. From its shallows they each lifted a dripping hand and touched it to their heads, murmuring a private orison, abashing her own thoughtless entitlement. William glanced at her silent inquiry.
“Puja... thanking you, Great Mother, for not smiting us in advance, and for the use of your gracious amenities, sincerely, your loyal servant Sachiin, PS, please don’t smite my godless bitch either, I’m not done with her arse, thanks again, yours truly amen etc.”
“She’ll smite you for calling me your godless bitch.”
“She knows I mean well.” They watched Edward assume his burden of ordinance and pick up half the water she had collected, wading out into the river alone. William waited until he had disappeared between the two gigantic spruce before granting her a look of secretive admiration. “Nice burn back there, but I’d wait til he gets off his rag before tweaking him again.”
“Yes, well now he’s got my fucking drinking water, hasn’t he?” she whispered.
“If you think about his romantic orientation Christabel, the kick he gets from yanking your chain is probably semi-erotic, so er, yeah... keep that in mind.” With her boots tied across her shoulders, Susan climbed awkwardly onto William's own as he knelt for her; he secured her legs and rose so quickly to his full height that she cried out and clutched his chin with both hands, urging him to stand still. “I am standing still.” he replied. She gazed around them with his rifle balanced across her thighs, directing him via her grasp on his ears.
"How can you stand being so far off the ground? Be careful..." she added, sucking in a breath when he stepped down into the water. It rose to lap the bare soles of her feet while he paused in the midst of the stream to negotiate a sunken snag; she bent low and pressed her face into his hair. "I think I would have flown all this way just to smell you."
"And that's perfectly healthy and normal. But we have to get to Pet’s without giving Chucky an excuse to take a run at the gristle-munchers." he advised discreetly. "He’d chew through fucking lead to start shit with someone. If we do bump into dog, we front for our sweet fucking lives... if they poke us with their sweaty trouser wood, we let them, sha bai?"
"I can't wait. Oh fuck...” she cried as his last packet of cigarettes floated free of his inundated breast pocket. He lurched sideways, threatening to tip her into the river and caught them, setting them on his head for the remainder of their crossing.
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce