It was chaos in the close quarter lodgings. No matter where Mirka went people threatened one another and fought over scraps of food. Father had told him that it was where the hopeless gathered. Where the penniless and the pitiful validated one another. “No son of mine will be caught dead here,” he had said. Well, now I am here, Father. Your legacy dies today.
Mirka found a space in a crowded ditch and lay there. He turned away from the menagerie. When he felt the grip on his arm he rolled over with a gasp. Esha was urgent. Blood speckled her arms.
“Esha,” Mirka said, his world rapidly darkening. “How did you find me?” “Come on,” she commanded, dragging him.
It was a relief to see her after a day in this pit. So Mirka lifted himself off of the Earth and followed her. The two of them climbed out of the ditch and went on, taking care not to trod on sick, sleeping bodies. As he followed Esha across the coughing mud pit she glanced backward over and over, clutching a clean knife.
Outside, the moon was low and big and lit a sludgy path. Esha dragged Mirka by the arm.
“Esha,” Mirka cried, “Let go.”
She would not.
They entered a twisted maze of wooden snickets which led to an enclosure where a mound of possessions sat on a cart. Here she stopped, crouched, and picked up a large piece of tarpaulin which she threw over the cart and tied with string. Then she tilted her head and listened. Far away was the bustle. Once she had made sure it was safe she looked at Mirka and said, “Father is dead.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Dead?”
“Yes, you utter fool. And now we have to go.” “But…But where?”
“Out there. Where are your things?” “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You mean you brought nothing with you?” “What happened to Father, Esha?”
“I’ll explain if we live. Mirka, they are going to be looking for us soon. Where are your things?”
He looked down. Traipsed his trainered foot in the mud.
“You left your things in the estate,” she said. Her voice held a harsh tone as if she was deliberately trying to hurt him. “That is stupid of you. Stupid and weak.”
Shame burned him. Father would have been cross at him for running. But Father was gone. Never to raise a hand to him again.
“What will we do, Esha?” he said. “You will carry this cart.”
“We cannot go out there, Esha. We cannot. We should stay here, live in the lodgings. Disappear.”
“The Council will find us. String us up by our entrails.” “We did not kill Father.”
Esha stared at Mirka’s belt where his blade hung. A knife he had held for a few days now. He turned away from her slightly, so she could not see it.
“They will not believe you,” she said darkly. “Now forget this and come on.”
The alleys they took were narrow and dark. Esha knew her way around them. She Knew the place better than anyone Mirka had known. As a younger child she had explored every corner of the slums.
When there were voices Esha stopped. Stiffened against the fence. Whipped a finger over her lips, and so Mirka stopped too and was very quiet. They went slowly when they moved out again and continued like this for a long time. Eventually Esha stopped and with her voice beneath a whisper said, “We are here.”
Esha halted him. The two stopped perilously still in a concrete silence, as if a scorpion were hanging above them with its stinger out and in a stern and tenuous motion Esha reached around and gripped the makeshift knife handle and poised herself like a python. Mirka’s senses bristled at the sound of footsteps. The shadow of a large woman gripping a shotgun crept up the wall. Esha stayed still, every move slow and smooth. No sooner had Mirka noticed the shadow than Esha struck. The shadow fell down and a line of blood painted the wall. Esha pulled the guard down to the mud and emptied the woman’s throat into the earth. The expression on the guard’s face was one
Mirka would later dream of. Her eyes screaming and she without the vocal cords to make the noise.
Esha dropped the fat cadaver and backed against the wall and sidled to its edge and kept very still. Mirka could not look away from the guard. Her dead eyes grimly regarded him.
“Mirka. Come on.”
He rubbed his hands on his legs and gripped the cart and the two went on.
He followed Esha across a deserted courtyard to an asymmetrical sewer hole that was dug into a muddy knoll. Esha got onto her hands and knees.
“Come on,” she said. “Mirka.”
“I can’t.” Mirka dropped the cart. “I won’t fit.”
“Of course you will,” said Esha. The words stung him. “I will get stuck.”
“You will not.” “And the cart.”
“Do not let go of it.” “But Esha…”
“We do not have time for this.”
Esha dived into the knoll leaving Mirka alone with the cart. He took short sharp breaths. Heart thumped. He kneeled down and pushed crawled forwards with his arms stretched out behind him. The mud slushed and stank beneath him and as he trudged through it with one knee movement after the other, his arms strained and the cart wobbled behind him. He used his elbows to keep himself from falling forwards and they burned with the motion of it. The tunnel before him was as black as pitch and Esha was nowhere to be seen in it. Ahead she had plunged with the strength Father had taught her. So it was, the daughters were trained by the fathers and the sons trained themselves.
“Esha,” he called. “Esha.”
“Shhh.” she said, but her voice was lost amongst the trudging so that Mirka was uncertain she had spoken.
He went on. Eventually, he had no notion of how far he had come. He crossed a wet stream where sewage was sloshing into the tunnel from a drainpipe. He went on until his knees and back were sore. Until his upper arms burned with the weight of the cart. He felt it stumble and tip over. He stopped and tried to turn around to fix it but there was no space to turn.
“Esha.” he cried for her help. “Esha.” She did not respond.
He let go of the cart and crawled forwards. After a long and deeply uncomfortable journey the mud began to thin and eventually he saw the dawn.
He peered over the edge and saw Esha standing on the rocks below with bloody palms clapped together and her knees also bloody. She was watching up at him. As he inched into view her face darkened. She had Father’s stare, there was no doubt about it. Mirka leaned forwards and the ground rushed up to greet him. Esha came over and pulled him up and they went on, clambering over rocks in the orange dawn. Esha did not remark upon the absence of the cart. But Mirka knew, this was only because she could not.
The day before the move Mirka packed his possessions into a cart. When Father returned and saw the manner in which they were stacked, his eyes sparked with rage and he pushed it to the ground. He watched Mirka scramble on the floor amongst his scattered and broken possessions. His face hardened.
“You’re almost grown now Mirka,” he said. Voice low and cold. “You should be able to stack your cart.”
Father sighed, turned his back. “Things are changing, Mirka. I will not hold your hand anymore. Esha tells me that the two of you meet every Fifth. To share stories and fraternize. Is this true?”
“And she also tells me that on each fifth, she is the one to make the fire. Is this true?”
He sighed. “I am pleased by her predisposition, but displeased by yours. Within a turn I will be a top advisor to The Council and you are to take my place when I am gone.” He turned partially. “Do you understand what this means? The Council is run by strong men. Men who are hated and feared. You must learn to make the fire yourself. Do you understand? I will not hold your hand.”
Father sighed, with finality this time. He pointed at Mirka’s things. “Stack the cart properly.” He left.
A group of grunts showed in the morning. Father’s possessions filled fifteen carts and each grunt took hold of one. The grunts went ahead of Father, who went ahead of Mirka and Esha. Neighbors stared dumbly from crowded cookfires as the envoy snaked through the slums. Later, by a fire of Esha’s making Esha spoke of the journey.
“Didn’t you feel it, Mirka? They must have seen how important we are.” Mirka threw a twig into the fire and watched it crackle and burn. “I suppose.”
Mirka told her what Father had said. And so the next day, Esha took Mirka out into their expansive new garden and broke matchwood off of a silver birch tree and shook off the rainwater. She collected wood of all sizes and put them in a row on the ground. She broke off one of the finer branches from an elderberry tree and stripped it and refined it and then left it out to dry. Later on, they went back out and she showed Mirka how to make an ember pan and a baseboard. She then got Mirka to carve a v-notch into the board and to fit the stick of elder into the v-notch. Mirka was ecstatic when it fit. She then showed him how to rub the stick of the elder between his palms. He placed his hands over the elder stick and rubbed like she had shown him but his efforts made no smoke.
“Like this, Mirka,” Esha said, putting her hands together in the proper way. “Like this.” But it did no good.
Eventually she stood and said, “We will try again tomorrow. Come on in.”
He refused. Mirka stayed out for hours working the elder stick. Eventually, his palms were redrawn and bleeding and it was only when he stopped that the pain overcame him.
He went inside and sat beside Esha, who was playing with a blackened deck of cards. He tried as hard to stifle his tears as he had been taught, but it did no good.
“Father wants me to take his place on the council one day,” he said. “And I cannot even make fire. Esha, I am afraid of him. When he sees what I am…When he arrives I will tell him outright. That I am weak and a failure. It is the strong thing to do, is it not?”
“You must placate him somehow, Mirka. But I will stand behind you.”
When Father entered, Esha took her hand off of Mirka’s back and stood abruptly.
But Father had seen. His face went cold and hard.
“Father, I cannot make fire,” Mirka said. “It is one thing among many that I will never be able to do. I cannot…I will not take your place on the Council. I will find my place in this world somewhere, but it cannot be…”
Mirka felt nails dig through his shirt and into his skin. Father dragged him onto his feet.
“You weep like a baby,” he thundered, throwing Mirka against the wall. “No son of mine ever wept.”
“You will take your place where I tell you to. Do you understand me?”
Mirka would never forget the way Father’s anger gave way to pain. How he fell down in a blossoming of splinters and how Esha scampered backward holding the shillelagh.
Father leaped up and flung a meaty hand across her face. She fell to the floor and he towered over her. “You defend a man when his father disciplines him?”
From the ground Esha screamed, “He’s a boy.”
Father went very, very quiet. He breathed heavily, his huge arms going up and down. He pointed behind him at Mirka. “When you look at him, do you see strength?”
Esha shook her head.
“So you agree, he must learn?”
Esha said, “He is Mirka, and you are you. Your place is not his.” “Then you will teach him his place.”
“I will do my b…”
“You will teach him. Or he will fight the wolves.”
Esha’s face dropped. Terror struck Mirka’s heart. The Wolf Pit was where weak boys were sent to regain their masculinity. Every sixth, villagers gathered gleefully to see them pushed into the pit and torn to shreds. Only a few villagers per turn left the event muttering that the boys had regained respect.
Father turned and approached Mirka. “Do you understand me, boy?” Father spat the word. “This is your last chance to grow strong. I assure you, the real pain is not jagged teeth sinking through your flesh. No, the real pain is dying a pathetic wretch while your kin point and jeer.”
“I will learn,” he said with tears in his eyes. He glared at Father as Father left. Two turns later Mirka was in his quarters preparing to set off to the markets.
Esha found him and pressed a dagger into his hand. Mirka shook his head and handed it back to her.
“If you will not take the blade, let me come with you,” Esha said. “Father is on the Council now, you know how things are for people like him.”
“Hated,” Mirka said. “And feared.”
“There is no shame in watching your back.”
“I have to do this myself. I can hardly use a blade.”
“Something happened on the Council, Mirka. I overheard him speaking with another of the advisors last turn. One of Father’s decisions has offended some of the people. You must be cautious.”
Mirka grunted. “Then I will take the damned blade.”
Esha looked at him with something like pity. “Survival is more important than the things Father says. Do not let him consume you.” She pressed the blade back into his hand.
Mirka dragged a cart through the smoke and bustle of the markets and bought sleeping furs and steel joists and other things Esha had relayed to him from Father. At one of the stalls, an elderly man eyed him. Mirka’s wits were nothing to behold but even he noticed.
He went on. Past caged irradiated beasts being sold as food. Past fabric stalls selling clothes people wore before the bombs dropped. And still, the elderly man watched him. When he left the markets and was pulling the cart through the alleys, twisting and turning his way home, he went past two guards. One of them regarded him with a nod.
A few alleyways later a voice rasped his family name. Before he could turn, the full force of a body struck him to the ground. Mirka swatted and scratched blindly. He regained his focus and saw the glint of a dagger. The man wielding it was elderly and mad in the eyes. He raised the blade high. Then just as he brought it down a strong hand caught the man’s wrist, while a second arm coiled his throat and dragged him off. The man slashed left and right until a second guard twisted his arm. The old man screamed and his dagger fell to the ground. One guard held the man while the other pierced him through the neck with a blade of his own. The guards dragged the corpse away and Mirka stared on. The man had died so fast and without a sound.
One of the guards returned and asked Mirka if he was indeed the kin of the man who the assailant had been raving about. Mirka did not answer. Rather, he quickly pushed himself up and ran. He took a sharp turn into an alley and went on.
Mirka returned home in the dead of night. The wind was rough and fast so that he had no trouble getting in unheard. He found Father sleeping soundlessly, his diaphragm rising and falling. Mirka took Esha’s blade from where he had fastened it and stuck it through Father’s neck. He woke suddenly. Eyes wide with pain. Gnashed his teeth and grabbed at his windpipe as if choking on a chunk of meat. While Mirka kept his grip tight on the blade, blood merely dripped from its entry point. When he tore it out Father’s blood painted the sleeping furs. Mirka attached the blade to his belt and left.
He walked down the hill, turning once to glance at the ugly wooden fortress belonging to Father, and went on.
It was morning by the time he reached the muddy slums. He found others living in the old home. So he turned and went on. When he arrived at the huge tent he found that it was unguarded and when he stepped inside the noise washed over him. A sea of people. All clambering over one another and queuing for food and water. This was where the homeless and hopeless gathered. Father himself had told Mirka that. He had said that the close-quarter lodgings were festering sores where the sick and worthless gathered to live in squalor. Mirka would die here. Just as he deserved.
The sun was almost gone when Esha told Mirka they had come far enough. She slumped to the ground. Mirka was watching the land below. She sea of rock and metal went blue and then black.
“Esha,” he said excitedly. “Look at the view.”
She put her head back against the rock and breathed deeply. She did not answer.
He turned around and observed the camp. It was a perch of flat rock. Beyond it was a dead tree and beyond that impenetrable blackness. His awe was overtaken by more pressing things. Things he had managed to ignore all this time because of sheer fascination and wonderment.
“Esha,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
“Esha,” he said. “Can we make a fire? Esha?” Her response was small. Defeated. “No fire.” “But Esha…”
“No fire,” her voice whipped him. “They are looking for us.”
Mirka peered over the rock. All was silent but the wind which was slowly rising to a subtle storm. “It will be cold soon,” he said.
“I packed sleeping furs and kindling. Now we have nothing and we will die here.
You should not have left the cart behind.”
“I couldn’t help it,” Mirka said. “I told you, you should have taken it.” “Taking the cart was the least you could do after putting us here.”
The words struck Mirka like knives in his heart. He went to his knees. Turned and slumped down. His back against the rock. His hands hung limp in his lap. “I did not kill Father,” he said lifelessly.
“It does not matter. Do you understand that? It does not matter. I executed myself for your incompetence, Mirka. It’s all I ever did.”
The wind whistled across the mountaintop. Soon enough it did get cold. Then more so. Mirka went to his sister. The two of them had not said a word to each other for hours and when he reached her he found her on her back, shivering violently.
“Esha,” he said, nudging her. “Esha.”
She did not respond. The clouds passed and revealed the moon. It was bright and big and lit up her body. Mirka did not recognize Esha. The strong person who had opened the guard’s throat was gone and all he could see was his sister. Young and cold and pale.
“Esha,” he cried. “Esha.”
After whispering reassurance he ran into the darkness and gathered leaves and twigs. He threw them down and dashed into the darkness and leaped full weight onto the lowest branch of the barren tree and brought it down with a thack. Standing again, he picked the branch up and holding it upright he frantically stamped it into splinters of varying shapes and sizes. Thack. Thack. Thack. He scooped them up and brought them to the mess and threw them on top of one another. He then reached in and took out the two strongest looking splinters, inserted one of them into the mess, and set the other across it horizontally, and began scraping it back and forth. There was no time for an ember pan or a baseboard. Heat. She needs heat. The uncertainty of whether he was doing it as Esha had on each fifth distressed him greatly. He kept going. As Esha’s violent shivers peaked. He cursed and yelled at the mess. A gust of wind sent it in every direction. By the time he had returned with a greater, heavier mass of leaves and twigs and moss and dirt, Esha was no longer moving. Mirka dropped to his knees and shook her.
“Esha,” he cried. “Esha.”
He took the two sticks as before and set to it. Back and forth, he scraped and scraped leaning forward and backward, his eyes fixed on the piece of wood. With this amount of time passing and still no smoke Mirka felt pangs of panic and glanced up desperately at Esha, hoping that she would tell him what to do. How to make it better.
His panic became horror. He slowed his movements, lost friction. No. We must have a fire. He averted his stare and kept going. But he had seen her now. There was no unseeing her.
Before long he glanced up again. “It is okay, Esha,” he said frantically. “We will have a fire soon.” Her eyes did not change.
The wind was merciless. He scraped and scraped and scraped and he looked down and there was no fire. The tinder box. It is in the cart. He kept going. Looked down. No smoke. He scraped and scraped and scraped. We must have fire. We must have fire. We must have fire. There was a sudden explosion of splinters and a searing pain in his palm. Mirka screamed furiously in the direction of his home and his scream echoed through peaks and valleys.
The wind was dead by morning. Mirka unwrapped himself from Esha and peered over the rock at the barren and empty land.
“There is nothing to be afraid of, Esha.” he said. “Nobody is coming.” Esha did not respond.
The sun steadily began to beat down on the dusty ground and the ground burned Mirka’s feet. But he tolerated it. And he listened to the Land deeply. In the far distance was a trickling and it tantalized his dry throat.
“I must go now, Esha. I will be back soon, I promise.”
And so Mirka took Esha’s canteen and secured it next to his own and climbed over the mound.
The path was steep and sharp. But Mirka managed to traverse it. As he made his way down the mountain he listened to the trickling and it led him further downhill. And soon he found its source. The stream flowed down the mountain jaggedly. He followed it past collections of rocks and over grassy knolls and eventually there came into view a pool of rust into which the water ran. The water was trapped there by a dam over which only a modicum of it was eternally escaping into the continuing stream. He clambered down to the pool and fell to the ground and gulped greedily. He only swallowed two or three times before he felt sick. Chin dripping, he took his canteen from his belt and unscrewed it and then held it underwater until it was full and then lifted it out dripping and screwed it shut. He did the same with Esha’s.
He was overjoyed when he made it back.
“I found water.” he cried excitedly. “I found water.” He placed her canteen in front of her. “Here you go, Esha. Drink.”
Esha did not drink.
He sat on the opposite side of the failed campfire and sipped slowly from the canteen. As the day went on he grew agonizingly hungry. But as before he listened deeply to the land and in the distance he heard a noise. Somehow, out here his instincts were sharp and the noise also gave him direction. He stepped over the circle of jumbled earth and after apologizing to Esha, unhooked the knife from her belt. As before Mirka reassured her that he would be back soon and then he climbed over the mound and went back down the mountain.
The humpbacked vermin sunk long teeth into its brother, who was dead on the rock surface. The creature had a large yellow-grey eye on either side of its face, a long tail and was very, very fat. Mirka knew about these foul beasts. They made up the stew at the breadlines after they were torn out of the spike traps that enclosed the city. If he killed this one, he would be full for a turn. He stiffened up against the stone, reached soundlessly behind him and closed his hand around the blade. He poised himself. Then it was as if he left his own body and he was merely watching somebody else grip the creature in a chokehold and fall backward with the thing squealing. Later when he threw the bloody creature down triumphantly and said, “I did it, Esha. Now we can eat for a whole turn,” his sister had no response. Ineptly, he sliced the creature into strips and chunks. Then used the knife to sharpen sticks into stakes and then took the stakes and pierced each one of them through a single lump of the vermin’s flesh. He then lay his and Esha’s food out on the ground. He sipped from the canteen and stared fearfully at the mess. Then he picked up one of the steaks and turned it in contemplation and then sunk his teeth into it.
It was the second fifth in their new home, and Mirka was sitting on the ground talking to his sister through an imaginary fire. She still would not answer, so he filled the silence himself. But in tones that sometimes sounded like Father, Esha had nothing but disappointment to relay to him.
So Mirka left the campsite, reminding himself that his task was bigger than he. He only made it a short distance before turning to look at Esha lying in that same position. Her skin had turned the color of the vermin he had feasted on and the canteen precarious in her limp hand. It is a long journey. You must take it, he thought, but the mere tensing of his muscles as he prepared to march back and collect it set him close to tears. He quickly turned and went, rubbing his face with his arm and then swallowing his feelings. Father would have been cross. Very cross indeed. Well not for long, Father and Esha. I will make it better.
It was full dark when he arrived. The moon lit the collection of boulders and crumbled rocks that lay beneath the protruding pipe. Mirka unscrewed his canteen and drank from it and then attached it to his belt and then climbed up onto the largest rock. Standing here he judged the position of the pipe. The wall seemed not nearly as high as when he had fallen from it two turns ago. But Mirka had eaten well in this time and grown stronger. He leaped. Yelped as his palms and fingers dug into the piping. Heaved himself up with a pained grunt. Relieved and out of breath with his chest on the pipe floor and his legs sticking out, kissed by the fresher air, he looked ahead into the darkness. How far could it be? He did not know but he would not stop until he found it. As he caught his breath the stink filled his airways and he gagged and spat. He had known the stink his whole life. It was as familiar to him as his own heartbeat. It was as much a part of his home as the rusted metal and sharpened stakes that built it up. And it would never, ever change. He placed his hands out in front of him and crawled into the darkness and went on.
It wasn’t until the light behind him was completely gone that the sores of the last two turns fired up. Screaming muscles. Burning palm every time he brought it down.
And why now? Moments ago it had been fine, he had felt strong. Now he knew that he couldn’t go on much longer. The cart is near, he told himself and extinguished part of his fear. Or rather, overrode it with determination. He went on.
Suddenly his arm gave out. Mirka collapsed face down into the filth. As he lifted himself up again he found that he could not move his arms or his legs. The pipe had gotten narrower and smaller the more he had gone. The cart is near, he told himself as he struggled in the tiny space. The cart is near. The cart is near.
Max Watt is a militant writer and connoisseur of dark literary fiction, as well as a musician and journalist. He has previously been published in Dark Dossier, Yellow Mama, Rosette Maleficarium as well as two editions of The 13 Anthology (2013, 2015). Dedicating his time to creativity in many forms from poetry, to short fiction, to creating abrasive noise in various musical projects, he is fascinated by the morbid, the minimal, and the obscure. @Maxx_Watt https://sentenceontheanvil.blogspot.com/