by Anne Varez
Katagma Chapter 2
One Year Ago
The truth about starvation is that it ravishes your mind. With every day that passes, I loose one more memory that is precious, one more piece that completes me. Tragically, I don’t feel that I truly comprehend what is happening. As I hunt for food for me and my sister, I find myself scavenging my mind for something that I think should be there. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Maybe nothing is there.
I steal an extra minute under the threadbare scrap of cloth we dementedly call a blanket. My body aches from the cold and the hard floor that I sleep on. I test each limb and muscle. I crawl out from under my blanket immediately feeling the loss of the warm body next to me. The fire has gone out, and we used the last of the wood. I bend over Emma, my eight year old sister, who looks younger than her years due to a lack of nutrition. I tuck the blanket closer around her. She must feel the absence of a warm body too. I stroke her hair. So tiny, so young, yet so wise and old. Older than eight. There is no room for children in this life.
I turn to the fire picking through the ashes in hope that something remains. Perhaps a rung of the old chair that I found yesterday or a scrap of bark that somehow escaped the flame last night. Nothing. I ache inside for my sister. I have to leave her, and I at least wanted to leave her a gift in return for my absence. I brush the ashes together with my feet creating a perfect circle. It is only October. How would we survive the winter?
Our little dwelling is a six foot by six foot space with a dirt floor and four plank wood walls. It tilts dramatically to the left. When the wind blows, it shakes violently. Emma and I hold each other waiting for it to collapse. It holds, but it reminds us that its days are numbered.
Emma and I use to make-up stories as to what this decrepit structure used to be. Our favorite theory was that it was a dressing room of a princess. It held a cornucopia of gowns for the many luxurious balls that she would attend. The ball would always take place in a glistening white castle with beautiful princesses and princes everywhere. Of course, our princess was the fairest of them all with creamy skin and dark, shiny hair. Emma always imagined her in a green dress to match her emerald eyes. She would dance and dance and dance. Past kings and queens and large lively fireplaces spilling enough warmth to fill the land. And always copious amounts of food. There were pancakes with sugary, blackberry syrup, a pyramid of cheeses, dates and oranges, chicken and steak with cranberry sauce, golden honey bread fresh out of the oven with soft creamy butter. Sometimes I imagined it so well that our blanket felt like silk against my skin, and my body felt warm from the large imaginary fireplace. But my belly never felt full.
“Where did she go?”
“What is that, pumpkin?” I stare at the knobby arms and legs and inquiring eyes of my sister.
“The princess. Where did she go?”
“Well, she escaped.”
“When the Great Collapse came, she dug a hole in this very floor in search of an escape. And do you know what she found?”
“What?” She crawled close to me matching my kneeling position knees touching knees and placed her hands on my legs. I paused in my idle drawing on the dirt floor my finger my artist brush. I gave the shapes one last look before erasing them with a swipe of a hand. Sketching fragments of memories that don’t make sense is such a worthless pursuit.
“A tunnel right in the floor that led to a magical place full of sunlight and happiness.”
Her eyes do a strange thing. They widen and lift at the corners. There is a sheen in them that I think are tears, but, no, it is a sparkle, a lightness. I am awed and bothered at this transformation and I can’t tell why until it hits me. It’s her look of happiness, and I have never seen it before. Not until this moment.
The next morning I woke to a soft, heartbreaking cry. I turned over in my make-shift bed to see my sister collapsed on the ground head bowed and tear stained. Her hands were raw and bloody. Her fingernails were jagged and caked with dirt. My attention, however, was fixed on the numerous haphazardly dug holes that filled the room from one rickety wall to the other.
Our fantastical world was as breakable as our flimsy house but as cherished as a ray of light that shines after a harsh storm. As I cleaned Emma’s hands as best as I could, I realized that I was the destructive force that decimated her dreams. I might as well have been the gust of wind that gave the final death blow to our home. Something died in Emma that morning.
We no longer speak of princesses and castles or dance around the room. I console myself that I just stole her daydream and that she would find another one. But in actuality, I stole her hope. She no longer had a light at the end of the tunnel. I swore that day that I would find it again and give it back to her.
The irony of our home is that it has a mirror. It is a small slab of glass the size of a man’s shaving mirror, and it hangs on the wall by the door. It was here when Emma and I claimed the space as our home. No one, apparently, found it worthy of theft. The irony is that a mirror in one’s home used to symbolize luxury. If someone had a mirror, they had the money to buy it and a reason to use it.
The mirror mocked me. I would catch glimpses of myself in it and quickly turn away. I am small and pale. My limp, dirt-encrusted hair frames a plain face with pale lips, a sharp nose, and sunken-in cheeks. The only interesting characteristic that I can claim is my eyes. They are icy, pale blue, the palest that has ever been seen. Sometimes someone on the street will stop and stare at them as if I am a two-headed monster in a freak show. I hate it. I work hard at being invisible, skirting along walls, fading into the shadows. I stay out of peoples’ way, became part of the landscape and always kept my head down.
I avoid the mirror at all costs this morning. I give Emma a quick, light kiss, and as quietly as I can sneak out the door. There is no point in waking Emma up. The only peaceful reprieve that she gets is the unconsciousness of sleep. Why wake her to the all-to-familiar nightmare? She will join it soon enough.
A wall of frigid air slams against my body as I step outside. The wind bites through my bones. I wrap my thin coat tighter around me. The sky is still dark. The sun had not yet peeked over the skyline. I learned young that the early bird catches the worm. To scavenge successfully, you have to start while everyone is still asleep. Sometimes you will find bits of food hidden in tree roots or wrapped in plastic buried in the ground. The guilt of ransacking someone's secret stash is heavy, but then I think of Emma.
Gruesomely, your best results came from scavenging bodies. Usually, the sick or weak were hunted. Too feeble to fight, they are attacked and left naked with all their valuables gone. They die shortly after. A naked body is a waste of my time. In the less populated areas, especially the recesses of town, I can find a body untouched. I feel remorse and often prayed over the body. Then I thank him, wishing he can hear me. I take only what I need and never leave him completely naked. Any item that appears to be personal or sentimental, I leave with him then cover the body the best that I can so that it will remain unmolested at least for a little time more.
While food is important, it isn’t the most valuable commodity. Clean water is, and it is the hardest to come by. There is a river on the west side, because of that, it is the most dangerous side of town. Guarded by whatever gang controls it at the time, for a hefty fee, you can obtain a small plastic container of river water if you can make it there with your life that is. Emma and I are long past having anything of worth to trade. We have other means.
A short distance from our home is a cement structure that stands five stories tall. It must have been part of a commercial building or factory at one time, but this tower is all that remains. There is no access to the inside except for a small sliver of an aperture. Emma is so tiny that she could crawl inside. Over time I became thin enough that I can crawl on my stomach and with difficulty get inside myself. What made this hide-out so special is the hole in the ceiling. Emma and I place every type of container that we can find on the floor. And wait. Eventually, it rains.
We sit against the wall and watch with eagerness for the rain to collect. With the first drop, Emma rolls from her back to her stomach and clutches the closest container to her staring. I don’t watch. I listen. When it rains hard enough the room fills with sounds - water on glass, on metal, and on plastic. All Emma hears is a clamoring racket.
“Don’t you hear it?” I beg. “Sweetness among discord.”
Music fills our concrete amphitheater.
Music triggers my mind. For those few moments, I believe I’m home.
The smell of honeysuckle is strong and curtains billow in the cool breeze. Someone is behind me guiding me out of the room towards the deck. His hand is warm and strong but gentle.
“Someone wants to meet you, Olivia.”
It is my father’s voice deep in tone but warm like the color of honey.
“This way, sweetheart.”
He sounds excited, proud.
I am happy. I am at peace. Then I wake up. I allow the memory to linger. I live for that moment. Happiness. Peace.
I have a route that I take every morning which is straight to the east side of town, an easy walk close to the border, where empty farm land lies desolate. From there I walk the entire east side stopping when I feel that I am getting dangerously close to the west side and the river. Along my path I collect useful scraps and trinkets that others left behind. I scavenge bodies on the edge of the field instead of in town. Most men are too scared to travel the border, so I have more success here.
I never go into the fields which we call no man’s land. The field is a mile wide and the only thing that separates our putrid city from the unascertained world beyond. While the river holds us securely in on the west side, no natural barrier keeps us harnessed on the east. The alien forces that be which I can only assume is the fractions of the government feel it paramount to prevent us from crossing at all costs. I often wonder if we are the disease to be kept in or to be kept out.
Once a year, someone always makes a suicide run across no man’s land. Whether they sport dreams of grandeur or a quick, definitive end to their feckless life, the end result is always the same. A dirge of bullets, a strangled cry, and a body left to rot. When the wind blows to the west the stench permeates our streets. When the wind blows east, armed men drag the body out and burn it.
From my farthest point, I double back and carefully pick a route less traveled to get home. Theft is a danger. If anyone perceives that you have anything of value, it’s taken from you by any means necessary.
I learned my lesson one morning when I lingered too long on the town’s border. It left me walking through town in the bright light of morning. I pressed myself against walls and tried to maneuver through abandoned alley ways all the while hiding the fact that I was carrying valuable merchandise. My limbs quaked with fear. My stomach threatened to heave up the bile that churned there. I was never going to make it. Within ten minutes, I drew the attention of a group of two men and one woman. I could tell by their appearance that they were part of The Branded, the gang that currently controls the water source. They were decently clothed and looked well fed. It was rumored that they were cannibalistic.
They were far from the west side, and I wondered what brought them here. They followed me a bit studying my small stature and the tiny bump in my shirt where my spoil lay. The woman turned to the two men and must have said something witty for the tallest man threw back his head and laughed. I saw the brand clearly on his neck. The shorter one ginned maliciously and looked my way. I grimaced and kept moving.
Inevitably, my fear got the better of me. I began running without a plan or thought. Logically, I knew my erratic behavior would get me caught or worse killed. Unfortunately, I never was good at controlling my emotions. Like the tide sucking the sand from beneath your feet, my emotion washed away all lucid reasoning.
Just when I thought that I had lost them, I would turn a corner and they would be there grinning. I would yip and scurry away their mischievous laugh burning gruesome images into my brain. After a while, I could not recognize my surroundings. I was in a part of town that was foreign to me. I wondered if they were maneuvering me towards the river.
I stopped in my tracks when the realization finally dawned on me. This was a game of cat and mouse. They could pounce at anytime. They enjoyed the hunt. I was never going to get away. I was never going to survive.
I stood there and wept. I wept for Emma, and I wept for myself. Eventually, the trio strolled up to me and surveyed the situation. They kicked dirt and rocks at me to stimulate a reaction. All I did was clutch myself sobbing and rock back and forth. I thought of begging, but I couldn’t form the words.
They must have tired of my deplorable show, because they all pounced at once. I hit the ground so hard that all breath was knocked out of me. Knuckle rammed into my face. I saw stars and tasted blood. I couldn’t open my right eye. I felt a boot smash into my ribs on my left side. I heard a definite crack and nausea overtook me. Rough hands extracted my treasures –– salted meat strips, a small container of water, and the little shoes that I had been excited to give to Emma.
One of the men grunted disapprovingly. He was disappointed. They tossed the shoes and came at me again. Out of my good eye I could see the silhouette of the shorter man approaching.
“Hey, little girl. Wanna have some fun?” he sneered and made a show of unzipping his pants.
I pushed myself in the opposite direction and hit someone’s leg. The taller man bent down and grabbed my arms to pin me.
“Just wait and see what we do to you.” He spit in my ear.
I hiccuped in terror and lost all bodily control.
“Little girl. Little girl,” he taunted. He laughed in pleasure.
The woman pointed at my crouch and with humor in her voice said, “She crapped herself.”
In horror the man behind me let me go and the shorter of the two stopped in his tracks. I felt the defined stain of excrement on my pants.
“Disgusting.” The contempt in his voice could not be more obvious. The woman was laughing hysterically.
“It’s disgusting! Pile of…” I cut him off by vomiting on his shoes. He growled in rage and repugnance.
“Filthy piece of crap.”
I got kicked once more for good measure and was left to die. I crawled on my stomach to the shoes. At least there was something that I could give Emma.
I do not know how I got home. I remember crawling and dragging myself until I recognized our neighborhood. Apparently, no one felt the need to finish me off. Most likely the stench kept them away. By the time I reached home, the sun was setting. I found Emma sitting in the middle of the floor, eyes large, her arms hugging herself. I felt tears sting my eyes. I held out my offering the little shoes.
Emma dragged me to the middle of the room to tend to my broken and soiled body as best as she could.
She was only five.