[Short story, by Sha’Tara]
For some time, Lon watched Reuben as he disappeared, then a cry from the orphanage made him turn and run to the ramshackle building. Two of the adults were already there, calming the children and bending over one three year old lying on the ground, the little body thrashing, if feebly. Sweet little Amri.
“What’s wrong with her, does anyone know?”
“Maybe something she ate. The children are chewing on anything they can eat. They’re all in terrible pain, Lon.
“I know, Maggie. I agree, we need to move, no more delays. We’ll get started right now, pack what we can, hide what we can’t carry and go.”
“Ruben said he’d go north if he was free to do so. He walked west when he left, but you know Ruben – he’d do that automatically just to confuse anyone wanted to follow or track him. I know he’d turn as soon as he was out of sight, but which way? I wish now we’d gone with him. We’ll have a quick meeting in about an hour and decide our direction, then we’ll just go. We cannot stay here, there’s nothing left to eat, and the water is no longer safe to drink.”
Soon the miserable camp was stripped and obliterated of recent human habitation as much as was possible. The children were lined up and given a rope to hang on to. The meeting was short: they would go east; no reason why except a secret vote turned up a majority of two for an eastern direction.
Lon was bitterly disappointed, he’d hoped they would try to follow Ruben, though he well knew that was impossible. He left his message for Ruben and they began their danger-fraught quest for food and water. Already Lon had violated one of Ruben’s warnings, to only travel at night. Adults took turns carrying little Amri and the weaker children. The rest of the children began to lose some of their listlessness as they noticed changes along the route.
Evening saw the group drop down into a small gully, to hide and for protection. Kamal, one of the strongest adults, went off in search of water which against so many odds, he did find. Everybody searched for edible plants and roots and some of the hunger was assuaged for a time. Night came and the small fire was doused so it wouldn’t create a glow. The people slept on the ground, in their old rags. Dried grasses had been stacked to lay little Amri and two other sickly children upon and each had an adult companion to keep them cuddled and reassured. The stars came out, harsh and bright, flickering like cold, unseeing eyes. Unable to help himself, Lon who was one of the sentry detail, walked a short distance away from the fitful and fretting sleepers and looked into the sky, turning slowly as he did so.
“Where are you Ana?” he thought to himself. “You promised and you must know we are in dire straights now. We need your help; I need you here. Don’t let Ruben be right about this. I’m desperately counting on you. You know I’m a terrible leader and here I am, leader by default. This is too much responsibility…”
Morning came early, gray and cold before the sun could rise. The hungry troop stood up, drank some water, and took to the land again, walking in the general direction of the sunrise. Everybody, even the children, walked slower, looking for plants and roots to eat. Hopelessness more than sadness pervaded the group. Who could blame them?
Finally the sun was high enough to beam down some energy into their wasted bodies. Laughter even erupted from some children as they noticed a butterfly.
“Follow it,” said one of the women, “it may lead us to some edible flowers, or even berries.” There was a bit of a chase, but the children were cautioned not to interfere with the insect’s path. Suddenly it rose up and they thought they’d lost it but it came down again to disappear behind a dip in the flat ground. They came to the edge and looked down upon a miracle, a regular feast. An entire embankment was covered in blackberries, more or less ripe.
Lon cautioned his charges: “I know you are very hungry but these plants will hurt you terribly if you wander in them carelessly. We have nothing to bind rips and tears in skin. Please use extreme caution. Do not be in any hurry, we will camp here. There are many green things here, there must be water also.”
Kamal went out on water detail again, he seemed to have a knack for finding it, and he did find potable water – warm but quenching nevertheless. The blackberries did not give up their bounty without bloodshed but they proved adequate to ease the group’s hunger. That was a good ending to what had started as a very dismal day.
That night Lon had a dream.
It wasn’t Ana who came to him in the dream, but his older sister whom he had watched being gang-raped and die in one of the hunters’ camps. She stood on the open ground, away from the camp. He walked over to her.
“Hello Lon, it’s nice to see you again. I’ve missed you terribly. I’m sorry I abandoned you in the camp but my body wouldn’t hold on any longer. I knew you had survived and escaped. How are you?”
“I’m so glad to see you Nan, you have no idea. I’m OK, but we’re in a very precarious situation here, the people I mean. We need help. The children are weakening; some are sick.”
“I know that, but things must take their course, Lon. In a way it’s your own fault that things are this bad.”
“How can you say that, Nan? How dare you! I’ve done everything I could to help here…”
“From your point of view, yes, but did you listen to those who may have known more? Did you listen to Ruben, or were you so worried about his wild streak, his atavism, that you refused to trust his better survivalist judgment? Didn’t he counsel to take the group away several months ago when the drought started? Didn’t you think he’d know where to take you all if you followed him? Did you think that he was trying to gain control of the group and were jealous of him? Weren’t you afraid he would break your rules when he deemed necessary to save lives? I know you Lon. You mean well, but you have never really mined those deeper aspects of your nature: the fearful, the coward and the user – those aspects of one’s personality that become the controller; which reside in your subconscious. It’s those things that killed Ana, and have brought you to these straights.”
“What do you know of Ruben, or Ana? How can you possibly know what’s in my subconscious? How can you know anything if you accuse me of killing Ana? I loved her!”
“Of course you did. You never realized you loved her too much under the circumstances, and you strangled her. She didn’t know because in her own way she loved you too, but you choked her those many times when you insisted she come away from her duties to be with you. She was conflicted; didn’t know where to stand between your demands, and the needs of the people. Oh yes, you killed her. She was an empath, Lon. If you had allowed her full freedom to live her nature she’d still be here, with all of you, and she’d be laughing with you tonight.”
“It’s a dream, just a dream,” said Lon in the dream, “isn’t it?”
“If you want, but it is much more than a dream. I’m here to help, Lon, but you must do as I tell you – exactly as I tell you – when you wake up into your real world. You will abandon any idea of leading this little group. Someone much more suitable is going to appear during the coming day. Your hopes for the group will be fulfilled, but not the way you hoped they would be. When help arrives, this is what you must do: walk away north, into the wilderness, by yourself. Do not turn back, do not come back. Your own redemption or your death, await in the young re-grown northern forests. You will meet some people there and they will teach you about real love which is compassion. I will see you again, Lon. Goodbye.”
He watched her fade in the pale moonlight and woke up drenched in sweat. Immediately he began to shake violently. He got up, stretched and went on a short run to warm up, all the while thinking about his dream.
“That’s not a dream, that’s a nightmare!” he thought. Then he saw the possibility that it had been a vision. “Morning will tell, tomorrow will tell. I’ll wait until help arrives, I’ll see.”
Strange times call for strange events. By the middle of the next day, as most of the people were busy gathering berries, eating, hauling water or keeping the children in line, the very first event of Lon’s dream came to pass: Ruben returned from his quest. He approved of the stopping place with a few nods. Always somewhat taciturn, he was even quieter than usual. Lon queried him.
“What brings you back so soon, and how did you find us?” Ruben frowned, then started talking:
“A blind man could have tracked your group Lon. Haven’t I taught you anything at all about being circumspect? What’s all around you, any idea? What lurks out there? What’s watching? What’s scenting the air? What’s listening? Anyway, I saw your sign, and read your message at the old camp. Also, I smelled your smoke – it travels a long way in this light breeze. But that’s no longer your concern. I’m taking over guiding this little group, for however long it takes before we get the help we were promised.”
“Say that again? The help we were promised? What do you mean by that?”
“I had a vision. Saw a woman who claimed she was your sister. She said that Ana had sent her. She explained about your, well, character defects. I already knew that, it’s partly why I had to leave, see? Anyway the vision woman asked me to return to the group and be the guide until Ana and her people are ready and able to rescue and relocate those of the group who want it. She said they’d all been waiting for you but you wouldn’t see it, so they decided to violate a bit of “prime directive” by contacting me.
You know me Lon. You know I would not make this up – I don’t believe in any of this. Somehow though, that woman, your sister, was very convincing.
“Now you have to go. Sorry, but it’s got to be short goodbyes. Take whatever you want, or think you might need and head north. She said Ana will meet with you when you’ve been gone long enough. North, Lon, north. It’s all waiting for your there. Once my stint here is done, I’ll be tracking up myself – I won’t be going with Ana’s people, even if they’re only relocating the people to another part of this earth. This, this land, this continent, is my world. I belong here.
“I still don’t believe this, but irrational as it all is, I understand. It’s not about belief, it’s the flow, just as in the wild. All anyone needs to do is walk in the great flow of things. The only time we must struggle is in opposition to those who do not walk in the flow of life. That’s what gives rise to endless conflict. I sensed your need to impose change and values. You can’t wish, desire or impose non-violence anymore than you can stop a meat grinder by sticking your fingers in it, Lon.
“I know this is harsh for you at the moment; you’re hurt and angry, but you’ll learn. The loneliness and the wild will teach you; the north, with its cold and its pristine snows will cleanse you and change you. If you’re worried about food or shelter, observe the animals and the birds and learn: they’re the best teachers in the wild. I’ll see you again, in the spring.”