Category C: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: K.Z. Barton
Title: The quiet words
I always heard the whispers.
I wasn’t supposed to, and my mother and aunts thought their hushed remarks never made it to my ears. But I made it my mission to hear every secret, every update about the beast and the sickness.
I had a favourite spot to sit, a little step just out of sight from the kitchen doorway. I’d gotten very quick at doing my chores. Whenever they sent me away on a task or errand, instead of returning as soon as I was done, I’d always sit on that step and listen. They’d ask each other how many would die this time. Sometimes they didn’t seem to care about who had been infected. Other times, an aunt would bring news of someone they knew. When that happened there would be lots of long pauses. And aprons and hair buns would be adjusted over and over again.
On those days, it was not unusual to catch Ma bent over the sink with her hands over her face. Whenever Jeremy or I wandered in, looking for a snack, she’d straighten up a little too quickly and tell us that a quick splash of cold water on the face was invigorating and good for the skin.
The descriptions of the beast changed with each telling, but some things stayed the same; they always said he was twice the height of a man, had skin like bark and glowing eyes. His eyes were sometimes said to be yellow, other times blue or red. But they definitely glowed.
Whenever he was sighted near town, the sickness would return, and we’d be trapped inside for weeks or months. If anyone who lived between us and the village got sick, Ma wouldn’t even let us out into the garden. She’d make quick, furtive trips out to harvest the veggies and check the traps. If no creature was dumb enough to venture into the snares for our meagre offerings, we’d make do with Ma’s stockpile of dried lentils and pulses and jerky that still tasted of leather even after being soaked in broth.
The longest time I could remember being stuck inside was four months, the year I turned seven. It was only after the deaths had finished, and there was no more smoke in the air, that Ma would let us stand in the garden and feel the sunshine on our too-pale faces.
Ma was very particular about routines. She said that in order to live we had to get along with the tasks of the living. I always wondered about the stuff she didn’t stay and what would happen if we didn’t do the tasks of the living.
Every morning, we’d wake up, do our chores, clean ourselves, and then, finally, eat breakfast. After that came our learning hours. Ma would write out basic arithmetic problems, and we’d solve them while she scrubbed the floor and soaked the lentils for lunch. After arithmetic, we’d take turns reading from our small collection of books. Whoever wasn’t reading helped Ma with housework and laundry. Some of our books had been read aloud in full dozens of times.
Ma always tried her best to make learning hours interesting, but Jeremy and I missed the little village schoolroom, no matter how often we were in trouble with Mrs Bergolie.
In the afternoons we were allowed to create. We could draw, knit, sew or embroider. Unless there was mending (and there was always mending), then mending had to come first.
Whenever the beast was thought to be near, our world shrank down until the only things that really existed were the cottage, Ma, Jeremy and me. At least until an aunt returned. A visit from an aunt meant the start of a safe time. A time when the outdoors was allowed to exist again.
Jeremy and I would lie in bed at night and try and picture our favourite aunt, Marie, walking down that path. We thought if we could imagine her clearly enough, then she would have to appear the next day. We’d make little scratches on the back of the wardrobe to mark every morning with no Marie, no aunt.
It had been six months since anyone had died. And with every passing month there had been fewer whispers for me to strain to hear from the step by the kitchen door. Jeremy and I had actually gotten to go to school for almost half a year. I was nearly at the end of level three. Soon I’d get to move to the blue building on the other side of town. Ma thought I should try and finish all of the exam levels. She always said she didn’t want me scrubbing floors every day, even though she was always so cheerful while cleaning the house.
But I wanted to go for other reasons. I liked the feeling of unlocking each new piece of understanding, and even more than that, I was addicted to the endless possible worlds beneath the cover of each new book placed in my hands. I liked thinking about a world larger than our tiny cottage.
Then came the day when Jeremey got sick. When Ma told me he was unwell, all I could hear was a whooshing sound. Ma took me to the couch and told me over and over that it was just a chill, not the scary kind of sick. Not the scary kind of sick.
She let me stay home from school that day. She showed me that he had no rash and could still drink his broth and eat his toast. He just needed rest and he would get better.
The next morning Ma gave me my lunch in a cloth wrapped parcel and sent me out to walk to school by myself. I’d been walking for about five minutes when I realised I could only see the path and trees, nothing else. Normally that never bothered me, but today, I wasn’t sure I wanted the world to be quite that large.
As I walked on, I focused on the sound of the birds calling to me.
A keening reverberated through the air. The birds fell silent.
The cries were so pained, I thought someone had caught their foot in one of those awful metal traps. Without thinking, I ran towards the sound.
The beast lay there, just as they had described. He was so big, and his skin made him look like a tree with legs. His eyes were squeezed shut, so I couldn’t see if they glowed. His foot, if you could call it that, was indeed stuck in a trap. Thick blue liquid seeped around the edges of the claws.
I didn’t feel scared. In fact, I didn’t feel much of anything. I don’t know if it was because a part of me had accepted that I was soon to be dead and there was nothing I could do about it. I knelt down by the trap, and just as Ma had taught me, I pressed down on the springs on either side of the pan with as much force as I could manage. The jaws began to loosen and the beast pulled his leg free. He rolled onto his side and curled up, still keening. Working with quick motions, I tore off strips from my underskirt. I gently nudged his side and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to help.’
He took a few deep shuddering breaths and let me grasp his foot. The cut was along his ankle and it didn’t actually look too deep. I expected his skin to feel rough, but it was as soft as suede. I carefully pulled my canteen out of my satchel and poured water over the wound. Next, I bandaged it with the pieces of my skirt. I kept pressure on the wound for a few minutes until the blue liquid seemed to stop spreading.
The keening had stopped and two glowing green eyes were studying me with open curiosity.
‘How long do I have?’ I asked, amazed at my lack of fear. I just wanted to live long enough to leave a note for Ma and Jeremy. I hoped they wouldn’t miss me too much.
‘What do you mean?’ The beast replied, his voice soft yet gravelly.
I swallowed. ‘How long until I die.’
An indescribable sadness filled his strange face. ‘I do not make children sick. Don’t worry, little kind one, you are safe. But do not tell anyone of me. They would never let you be near them again. But I promise you, child, you are no danger to anyone. Thank you for your aid, but you must leave now. If you are wise, you will forget this ever happened.’
I couldn’t force myself to move.
‘Please tell me. Why do you make the villagers sick? What have we ever done to you? Can you please stop?’
He sighed and was silent for so long that I began to worry he was done speaking to me.
‘We do everything we can to avoid making your villagers sick,’ he said finally. ‘But we cannot control what we are. We do not know why, but something about us is incompatible with the full-grown of your kind. We try to stay as far away as possible. We only venture near when we must hunt for food to feed our younglings. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death, but I cannot let the small and innocent starve.’
‘Oh,’ I replied. There didn’t seem to be anything more to stay.
‘Will it always be like this? You come looking for food, and we start to die?’
‘Perhaps, but I hope not. My people are searching for a pass through the mountains. We hope there will be a safe place for us on the other side. A place where scared villagers don’t hunt us down and set fire to our homes.’
I reached out and placed my fingers over his hand. My hand looked tiny against his. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. My words were quiet, but they felt important.
He touched my cheek ever so gently. I was struck by the bright green of his eyes, undeniably foreign, yet so full of emotions as familiar to me as breath.
All of a sudden, I noticed the angle of the sun in the sky. I had to leave before anyone was sent to find me.
‘I hope you find your safe place,’ I whispered before turning and running back to the path. I glanced back once and thought I saw a slight smile on that strange face.