Written by Jeffrey Wyeth / Illustration by Julia Imperiale
Deep into the woods, sheltered from sun – it was cool, and quiet, and dark.
“We could live here,” said the Girl.
The Boy nodded, surveying the space around him. We could, he thought.
But that was then. This is now. Look:
The heavy, fat yellow flame of the torch waves slowly about on the tip of the thick branch. The light lazily splashes and bounces and jumps around the clearing in the woods, describing a small, secret golden space around the three of them, distorting the things around them. The trees are ancient, mute giants in this half-light, disappearing into the blank abyss up above; and just beyond the flickering carpet of leaves and twigs and bark, the shadows seem to be even darker now, thick pools of black ink.
The Boy brings the torch closer to the Man’s face, and the Man twitches, knocking the back of his head into the tree. They’re just kids, the Man thinks. Just kids. They are indeed. The Boy and Girl, standing half-naked by the light of the torch, are perhaps just old enough to drive a car, or buy alcohol, or a gun, but they are still just kids. Yet there is something more in their faces, in their weather-beaten skin, in the little scratches and cuts and scars across their bare arms and legs. They have leaves in their hair, which they wear as crowns, like wild, young Roman tyrants. Their eyes, the Man notices, simmer with a brooding alertness, dark, focused, animal-like. They remain staring at him, in a heavy silence.
The atmosphere even heavier, thick and intense, like a shot about to fire at any minute, tearing into the night sky, roaring. And yet, silence. An uneasy stillness hangs in the air. The Man is still holding his breath, and doesn’t even realise it. His temples begin softly thumping a dull, aching throb; a steady painful beat that will soon begin to creep into the backs of his eyes.
The pulsing glow of light dances closer around the Man, who is now securely tied up to a tree. The Boy squints at the Man’s uniform – dark t-shirt and sleeveless vest; dark trousers and boots; a shiny loop of metal with things on it that make chittering, jangly noises when he moves; and a small black box on his waist, which is quiet now, but the Girl is sure it made noises too, like people talking. The Boy pokes at the Man’s chest, some sort of symbol, a shield or insignia, is stitched onto his clothing.
The Man shivers, from the cold, from the fear, from the sharp pain screaming up and down his broken legs. Then, having held his breath for too long, the Man blacks out.
Down in the southern-east coast of Australia, there is a long, winding stretch of highway that twists and turns; an asphalt serpent that slithers between the turquoise satin sheets of the ocean, and the jagged, heavy-faced cliffs of thick forest. Somewhere along the highway, a small convoy of high school students stopped on the side of the road with their teachers, and slowly headed down to the beach below to enjoy a school picnic. It was a mass of chattering, and school bags, and laughter, and noise. Up above, where no one would think to look, amongst the heavy tangles of trees on a cliff, the Girl watched. She turned her back on the scene below and headed back to the clearing in the forest.
She picked up her broom, a makeshift thing she had made herself from a long branch and twigs and vines, and continued sweeping up around their fire-pit area. She hummed a slow, aimless melody as she worked. It was another quiet day, none of the usual far-away scuffles of animals. It was too hot to do anything today. The Boy had wandered off to find something to eat. Hopefully, he would go down into the town and steal something from the buildings there. But that didn’t happen very often, they couldn’t risk getting caught. The Girl has since forgotten how long it had been since they left the other world. But here, time became less like bricks – solid, churned out day in and day out – and became more like a breeze, or like a spirit. The Girl thought of time as being like when she would look into the bright light of the sun. And how it remained there, the light, burning away in the eye somewhere, changing colour, a nostalgic amber colour, transforming, and ultimately fading away forever. Things seemed to occur like that light, burning bright at first, then fading far away, existing only in the mind’s eye.
“We eat!” the Boy declared, triumphantly holding a large basket over his head. He had become an expert at walking through these woods without disturbing as much as a single leaf. But somehow, the Girl always sensed when he was near, and was never startled when he appeared out of nowhere. She clasped her hands together.
They sat on the ground, around the circle of rocks that housed their nightly fires. This morning, now just handfuls of black dust and twigs. Time, the Girl thought. She didn’t know what else, there wasn’t anything else, just the word. Time.
They ate quietly, picking at sandwiches, and fruit, enough to feed a small family.
“Remember when I used to feel bad about the picnics we’d find?” the Girl blurted.
The Boy simply nodded, chewing.
“But then that’s how it is with all life isn’t it?” the Girl wondered, staring into the trees, then happily munched into an apple.
“The gods provide. Everyone has their turn to eat and go hungry. Everyone dies, or lives another day,” the Boy responded.
“I know. That’s why I don’t feel sad anymore. We live amongst the gods now.”
The Boy wiped his hands on his knees, dumping the rubbish into the empty basket. He went over to the Girl, and kissed her lightly on her cheek and forehead. She closed her eyes, chewing the apple, happily receiving his love. She watched as he went over to the trees where they slept, watching his muscles work as he nimbly climbed up to the raised platform they used as a bed.
“I’m going to re-do this roof,” he said without turning, closely inspecting the network of long branches and thick leaves they had constructed as a shelter. “After all that wind last night…” he trailed off.
The Girl gasped, remembering something. “Last night! The wind. A big bird’s nest fell into the ditches.” She looked over to the area of earth that plunged straight down into a cold ditch of jagged rocks and tree roots. “I thought we could eat the eggs, but there were babies inside. And they died.”
The Boy untied parts of the roof, throwing the rope down to the dirt.
The ditches were a single, uneven trench that circled around their living space, and ran about two metres deep. The Boy had dug them when they first moved into this part of the forest, using a shovel he had stolen from a council trailer. They used the ditches as defence against any unwanted snakes or critters. The shovel too.
“I guess the gods didn’t want them to live.” The Girl looked up at the Boy as he worked. She paused to think it over. “If a person kills somebody else, and they die, is that because the gods wanted that to happen?”
The Boy jumped down and gathered up the rope, looping it around his fist and elbow, making a neat circle. “I don’t know. Out there, people live by their own rules. Without the gods.”
“What about in here, in our world?”
“But no one’s ever come into our world.”
The Girl stared off beyond the ditches. “Do you think you can ever kill someone?”
The Boy shrugged, and hung the loop of rope on a branch.
“No,” the Boy replies, holding out a finger under the Man’s nose. “He’s still breathing.” He hands her the torch. “Here. Take it to the fire-pit and make a fire. I’m going to move him so he can lay down and get some warmth. He’ll freeze up here.”
The Girl moves to the fire-pit in the middle of their living area, bundling up the loose branches and kindling nearby, and quickly gets a fire going. The cocoon of trees around them take on a bright yellow glow. They gently wave with the breeze, conspiring giants huddling over the three people below, mute witnesses to the night-time scene. The Girl looks back at the trees, in deep thought.
Jeffrey Wyeth is an emerging writer based in Ballarat. He is currently working on his first short story collection to be published in 2021.
To continue reading this article, purchase the Spring 2020 issue of GOLEM Quarterly Review.