The dogs had dug up Mammy’s bones again last night. A tangled mess of grey angles protruding from the frozen ground. A few missing now. The frost clinging to what remains, unearthed like sallow mushrooms. Perhaps they were Simon’s dogs. Hard to say.
Hannah lifts a rib to her cheek. Slick with dog slobber and mud. She rubs the rough notches made by hungry teeth with her thumb. It’s difficult to think of herself and Jeremy once squashed beneath this bone together, as small as apples. The idea comforts her a little.
She dusts Mammy’s skull with her sleeve. The jaw is absent. As mad as she is at the dogs, it’s sometimes nice to see Mammy again. She thinks about boiling them clean and keeping them inside the boxcar. But Jeremy wouldn’t like that.
She plucks one of the tiny, narrow bones from a tangled mass of wizened skin and tendons. It could have been a finger. Or a toe. It comes away easy, like grasping a berry from its vine. It’s no longer than Hannah’s thumb. There is spongy darkness in its center, and a barbed crack running to the base. She puts it in the pocket of her jacket.
She takes out her tin cup from the sack in the shopping cart and presses the lip against the ground, scooping the mealy earth into it. She empties and refills it until she has made a hole a foot deep and wide. She wants to bury the bones deeper this time, but she does not have the strength. Maybe she will place a rock over them. She unwinds the blue rag scarf from her neck, the one she found drowning in Bad Lake, and wraps it gently around the bones, nestling them within its folds. She ties it in a careful knot and tips the bundle into the hole.
Beneath the sky of opalescent scum.
Hannah thinks about the time Mammy brought them all to the top of the Hill to watch the last airplane leave. No one really wanted to see it, but they also did not want to miss it. Some said it was better to have their wanes witness it once than never at all.
She does not remember seeing any of them in the sky when she was wee. But she knew what they did—lift people into the clouds and take them far away. And never come back.
Never again to the poisoned island.
It was a small group. Tight hands holding threadbare jackets closed. Feet stomping against the solidified ground to keep warm. A few toddlers on shoulders, some crying for having to be out in the cold. Jeremy and Hannah flanking Mammy. Simon fussing in her arms.
From the top of the Hill, you could see where the shanties ended and the swamps began. Back when there were more shacks, more discoloured tarps encrusting the pinnacles of latticed sticks. This was their home, the makeshift camp that lasted longer than many of the folks fleeing from the valley. Mammy said their family always came from Highland stock. They had as much right to the clean air on the mountain peak as any.
Hannah watched the long, grey speck launch itself from the ground, the growl of its belly pulsing through the air into her throat. The last time she would ever hear an engine. The smell of petrol. The lights on its wings blinking confidently against the gloaming of winter. Hannah covered her ears with her discoloured mittens. The plane’s body grew smaller, a slim bird determined to pierce those leaden clouds. And just like that, it was gone. Silence in its wake.
‘Rich cunts,’ she heard someone say.
‘This is it then,’ someone else added.
This is it then.
Hannah pushes her metal shopping cart against the wind. Jeremy replaced the wheels with sled runners. But it still snags in the solidified grooves of mud with every other step. Her joints grind, her neck burdened by the weight of her tired, sagging head. Her shoulder has not sat right in its socket for many weeks now.
She has two buckets for good water. And a few carrier bags in case any of their traps are full.
She needs to gut and skin the beasts where she finds them. Can’t let the smell lure the dogs to follow her heels. Meat must always be sealed tight.
She stumbles down the brambled path to Good Lake. The sky is marbled grey—a green hue adumbrating the sun. Skeletal trees obtruding from the mud in a reluctant manner. The pit of water stretching before her, as the ground dips down a steep slope.
No coots on the water. No minnows rippling below.
She leaves the cart and approaches the water with her two little buckets. The water is cloudier than usual. And simultaneously brighter. Pearlescent. Streaked with a luscious hue, like a pungent oil spill.
A moon-shaped mound is rising from the surface.
At first she think it’s a dog, but the snout is too long. The leg closest to the surface ends in a small, brown hoof.
A wee deer. Its mouth is open, braying. The flat teeth peeling from black lips. A bloated stomach breaching the water for the flies to find. White flecked shoulders. A pearl of an eye gaping skywards, full of reverence and resignation. Good Lake is not deep enough for it to have stumbled in and drowned.
Her gloved hand clenches the handle of the buckets. This is it then.
She blinks. Then the significance glances off her mind. It has to.
The remainder of her routine pulls her along like a marionette on a string. She checks the traps tucked away in the brush that hems the water’s edge. The north side is empty, the traps untouched. Her leg-hold snare rests pristine—the twisted barbed wire still looped above the trap door of metal disguised with dead leaves. A hole crowded with sharp skewers of steel beneath, for good measure.
Hope is a strange bedfellow in the North. Hannah hopes for something larger than a cat in her traps, even though she has not seen anything larger than a stoat before today in many seasons. She hopes for rain even though the resplendent clouds rarely bleed. Nonetheless, you set the traps and lay your buckets. You place your tracks and pray the train will inch forward.
She leaves her buckets on the north side of the lake, tucked behind bushes but still under the open sky. Protected from the wind and any thirsty creatures. No sense having more water spoilt by the shedding flesh of the drowned. Or pushing a hollow weight back up the slope.
Never open your mouth to the rain here. Boil it.
Only one rat dangles from Hannah’s snare on the south side. Lucky. More seem to be fleeing the valley. But they don’t look like they used to. Bloated heads. Malignant bellies. Sweaty, poultry masses. They might not be safe to eat. At least it’s meat.
At least it’s meat.
She dissects the rodent on a rag in her lap and bags the skinned pieces. She licks the metallic sap off her fingers, even though she knows she’s not supposed to.
Hannah looks over the rot of the world. Stagnant water. The claws of dead wood in the shadow of a mountain peak. Yellow brush compacted beneath her cart. And still, the tell-tale signs of human waste. Black bin bags bursting with decay. The upturned shopping trolleys, beside the plastic triangles of sandwich wrappers. The Fisher Price telephone. Its smile drowning in mud. An oddly familiar grin.
I will kill Simon, she thinks. One day, I will slit his throat.
Mammy gave Simon everything. She remembers how weak she became giving him her breast. He sucked her dry.
A few older folk had decided to attempt travelling down the mountains into the valley and skirt around to the coast. The winds were carrying the South’s fallout. Its spill of mephitic particles were inching closer every day. The village could feel it in the itch of their skin, the looseness of their teeth and hair. The mountain’s altitude would only protect them for so long. It was potentially the last opportunity to see if any fishing villages had any boats left, and if they would be willing to trade for much-needed supplies.
Mammy volunteered, brave as she was. There were only a dozen families left. She left with six others.
The moon shrivelled and then swelled in their absence. Everyone worried. They lit fires every night for them. Only three staggered home. Including Mammy.
One night, she stumbled into their shanty. A dozen neighbouring voices cried out, seeing her coming up the Hill. She shoved apart the rags dividing their home from the extremities, and collapsed on her knees, planting her face to the ground. Hannah peeled back the matted hair from Mammy’s face and kissed her cheek over and over again. Until she could believe she was real.
Mammy carried nothing. Her pack was missing. The cart with supplies they had sent with the older folks had vanished.
Her lips were dried and shrivelled. Her skin was mottled, and began to slough. Maceration pasted her flesh to the thin fabric inside her jacket. Her eyes rolled to the sky. She was trembling, murmuring nonsense. She had soiled herself.
Hannah rolled her onto the best cot, and dabbed her forehead and neck with water from the Good Lake. Jeremy ground some squirrel tripe and tried to spoon it into her mouth. Mammy retched and spat it out. Hannah held her tight, and let her hack the bile down the back of her left shoulder.
‘’S gone,’ Mammy said, her voice a thin, taut wire. ‘Fisher villages gone. ’S all…’
Hannah could not make out the last words. But Simon could. She saw the look of recognition pass over his face before he turned to leave their shack.
Hannah saw Mammy’s veins pumping beneath translucent, blue skin. Her cheeks sunk, her teeth were grinding them into bloody apertures. Eventually, Mammy thrashed into unconsciousness. Hannah thought, in the morning I will boil water for a bath. She will like that. Seethe the bad bits from her skin. Let the abscesses weep.
Hannah fell asleep beside Mammy, her hand over hers.
In the dawn’s light, Hannah awoke to a muffled scream. And Simon sitting on their mother’s chest. His hand clamped over her mouth and squeezing her nostrils shut.
Hannah beat his face, his shoulders, his back, with all of her might. But it was too late. Mammy had gurgled, and deflated like crushed moss.
‘Ready Nation,’ he said, afterwards. ‘It’s all Ready Nation.’
He took the respirator mask with the good filter before he left. And most of shantytown was burning by morning.
She hears a leaf rolling and scratching the ground. She ducks behind a boulder, her lower spine grating against the rock. That sore spot where the skin is so thin that she rubs it raw in her sleep. Simon and his pack could be scratching around.
Moving in daylight is usually safe. The unspoken covenant. But if they don’t already know about the water, they soon will.
She holds her breath and counts to seven. As high as she knows.
Nothing follows. It must have been the wind.
She retrieves her cart from the mud and pushes it back across the dead heather, up the winding mountain path, cutting through bleached grasses. Around the Hill and where she had re-buried Mammy’s bones this morning.
She threads her cart between the felled stumps speckling the back of the knoll. And all around her, the colourful waste of decades past catches her eye, against the russet leaves and brush. Cigarette cartons. Crisp bags. The round balls of carefully trussed nappies. The waste that would never leave the mountains even with the strongest winds.
It makes her sad to see. It reminds her of the older folk and the shanty community they used to share. Back when single-use commodities could still be found in their caches.
Before Simon started spouting that shit about destiny. Taking the youths into the woods each night. And when they return, withdrawn and furtive. Secret symbols cut into the backs of their hands. Fires burning late until morning in the woods around Bad Lake.
Most of the town scattered after shantytown burned. Stumbling down the mountain, or trying their luck towards the coast, never to be seen again.
The few that remained began to believe in the Cleansing and the power of Ready Nation that Simon preached. The chosen ones, ready to accept the chemical baptism. Open mouths, devouring a communion of noxious isotopes.
She’d heard it all. Ever since they were teens. ‘We’re chosen,’ Simon would say. ‘We’re to become new beasts. T’ unserving decayin’ from our flesh. ‘T new implantin’ in our marrow.’
She grips tightly and locks her swollen knees against the sliding current of pebbles as large as foxes’ skulls.
The mountain path flattens suddenly into a plateau. She turns east into the wind, her face stripped of warmth, the cold peeling moisture from her eyes.
Soon the spooned feet of the cart ring against hard steel. They find the rail tracks emerging from the bowels of the earth. Hannah follows them until the rusted roof comes into sight, snug against the back of an old, deserted freight station. The discoloured walls of the boxcar draining downwards. The lonely metal box.
Hannah whistles twice, and then knocks against the boxcar door. She hears Jeremy release the latch within, letting her slide the door open.
Her eyes take a minute to adjust to the gloom. She sees Jeremy shuffling back to his corner, and the small lantern flickering against the wall.
‘Nae more good water,’ she says.
She places the carrier bag with the skinned rat gently on top of the stove. They had punctured a small hole in the ceiling of the boxcar and installed a funnel for the smoke to escape. It’s hard to get anything to burn here. Flames refuse to lick damp rot.
‘Ye hear me?’ she asks Jeremy.
‘Need more pine for tar,’ he mumbles. He covers a phlegmy cough with the sleeve of his coat. The bulbous mass on his jaw shivers with every exhale. He rubs it absent-mindedly.
His response makes Hannah feels despondent. Even though she knows there is nothing to be done about the water. She still hoped he may care.
‘Pine died last year,’ Hannah sighs. At least she thinks it has been a year. It’s difficult to tell when there are no leaves to discolour and fall. And no spring to warm your memory.
Jeremy frowns. His single, square lens creasing the socket of one eye.
In the dim light, he sits before the inverted boat hull, its metal spine thrusting into the dark air. An emaciated behemoth inhaling its first fruitless breaths.
Her brother, her twin, playing shipwright. Attempting to build something they have only seen in picture books. And bleary childhood memories of seaside holidays. Two hundred miles away from their lonely mountain now.
Jeremy’s movements are slow and furtive. She asks him when it will be ready. Not out of impatience, but the last dregs of congeniality. His voice soothes the dark, softens its rough edges.
‘Soon,’ he says, as always.
The thirst begins before night falls. Jeremy tells her to suck on a stone. An old wives’ trick, he says.
She takes Mammy’s bone from her pocket and places it in her mouth. It seems more benign than an old stone from the forest. The texture is spongy and porous. She winces as it touches the abscess at the back of her jaw. The weeping hole that used to hold her molars. Not uncommon in the North.
They eat the rat. Roasted. Their soft teeth peeling the meager meat off the tiny bones. No water for broth. Hannah gives herself the slightly larger pieces. She did catch it, after all.
They lock the boxcar doors tight with chains and bolts. Their fingers catch on the rust. Tiny splinters of festering metal. No water to wash.
Hannah huddles in her corner, piling the limp rags and soot-singed blankets over her legs. Her breath rattles with damp. A sharp wind whips against the boxcar walls. It drums the metal box, the vibrations burrowing deep into the ground. She shivers and pulls the holey, mildewed rug up to her chin.
‘Boat may be finished in fortnight,’ Jeremy says from his corner. He sounds pleased.
Hannah nods slightly, politely. A fortnight without water.
‘Push it ‘round Good Lake, down t’ southern slope.’ He lifts his head, his bulbous profile casting a shadow across the oxidized floor. ‘’Haps we can lay rollin’ logs on t’ ground. Make a slipway.’
Jeremy has not set foot in Good Lake’s direction in at least a decade. He has no conception of the thistles and brambles and thorns. The kind that shred the shins and moisten the ankles with dew and blood.
‘At least ten days te t’ coast,’ she says, flatly.
‘Mammy dinae make it.’
‘Mammy was stupid.’
Mammy could have been queen. Flowers in her hair. Like in the picture books. Hannah sticks her bottom lip out and pulls the blanket over her shoulder. The soft bone still in her mouth.
She closes her eyes, imagines the taste of cow milk. Colder and sweeter than water. She squeezes Mammy’s bone in the pocket of her cheek. Sing me a song, she says to it, thinking of it filling her mouth and throat with loving melodies.
A dog howls. A low, throaty bawl. Hungry and ornery. Loud enough to be in the vicinity of the abandoned freight station and refracting between the abandoned boxcars. The hollow, rusted beasts, dying scattered across oxidized tracks.
Hannah blows out the lantern and lies still, holding her breath. She can feel Jeremy sitting a little straighter, their ears straining against the dark.
Footsteps carry against the frozen ground. Then voices. More feet. The panting and growling of dogs.
A knock thuds against the boxcar, three times.
‘Come oot,’ a voice says. ‘Surrender yer blades ‘n crawl before t’ Prophet.’
When I kill Simon, Hannah thinks, I can free the dogs. I know what he does to the pups.
At least it’s meat.
Jeremy looks towards Hannah. He shakes his head twice. She knows he would rather burn in this metal cavern, frightened and silent.
The fist knocks again.
‘We’ve a man on yer roof,’ a voice calls. ‘If ye no come out, we’ll send fire doon yer chimney.’ Even with the years maturing his voice, she knows it’s Simon. Hannah shudders. The sound lacerating her heart and lungs.
‘Jeremy?’ she whispers. His head trembles against the gloom. His nose and mouth buried beneath cloth and rag.
Hannah steels herself. Rises. And unbolts the chains. The rust grinds. Jeremy whimpers.
She grunts as she throws open the sliding door.
She comes face to face with a skeletal man, thin and wiry. His eyes puckered into sockets above sharp, porcelain cheekbones. A hairless scalp gleaming in the light of a dozen torches. His features are pinched, exaggerated, Hannah thinks. Not like the rest of our family.
‘Hullo, sibling,’ Simon smiles.
Hannah raises her fist to his face, wanting to knock his eyeball into the back of his skull. Before she can, a hand thrusts into her neck and pinches her throat with dirty fingernails. A grinning, shirking demon.
He throws her into the dust. Into the center of a luminous halo of torches. Smirking faces. Shrouded bodies, entombed in discoloured, grey wool. Their parents’ wool. Anything left behind.
She bites mud. The impact of the ground forces her to swallow Mammy’s bone. She whimpers, feeling the ossein slide down her esophagus into her stomach. Lost.
Hannah raises her hand to her head into the dim light. She watches Simon round on her. A rusted crowbar in his hand. He drums the end against the hollow box of metal that was their house. Now it is bare. A half, spoilt cocoon.
It’s been so long since she last cried from fear.
‘Gies your water,’ Simon says, threading the crowbar over his shoulders and resting his forearms atop.
‘We no have any,’ replies Hannah, spitting into the dirt.
Simon laughs to himself. ‘Ye must think am more stupid than I’s look.’
‘Ah would’ve thought youse liked a little fallout in your water. Make youse big and strong.’
‘Ye will hold yer tongue aboot tings you dinnae understand,’ Simon says. He extends his hands, bares his chest to the sky. As if welcoming the night into his lungs. ‘The poison in the South tests us. Steels us. Cleanses us. In a hundred years, all that remains will be tempered. But we no have to die tonight on account o’ some foul water. We are the chosen few. We must be smarter, stronger.’
A few ‘ayes’ ring out around the circle of light. She sees the muddy-faced youths. Younger than she. Clinging to the barbs of fiery torches and the collars of wayward mongrels. They bark and snarl her way.
Simon digs his boot into Hannah’s ribs, rotating the toe. As if to cement his conviction. She cries.
Jeremy launches himself from the boxcar, into the mud beside Hannah. ‘Leave her alone,’ he screams, placing his arm over her torso.
A lackey winds him with a stick an inch thick. Casts him into the clay.
Two men armoured with metal plates lashed to their bodies and limbs enter the boxcar. The sound of crates overturning. Glass spilling onto the floor. A metal hull being kicked, prodded, and winded.
‘Big sister n’ brother,’ Jeremy mutters, rounding on them. ‘Ah know youse no fools.’
‘Ah only saw Good Lake was bad this morning,’ Hannah pleads. ‘We was too sick the days before.’
Simon picks the scabs beside his mouth. The ones that thread to the corner of his ears. Peeling away the matter that binds his face together. ‘Am tired of these lies,’ he says. ‘Burn the box.’
His droogs toss their torches into the bowels of the boxcar. It catches on Hannah’s bedding, her crates, her straw dollies, sending the insides into a brilliant inferno. Jeremy howls. ‘T’ boat,’ he cries.
Simon kicks Jeremy’s back to the ground. ‘More’ll burn if ye no tell me where ye keep yer water.’
‘T’ boat,’ Jeremy whimpers again quietly to himself, his face pressed into the mud by Simon’s boot. His swollen cheeks become slick with tears. She sees the desperation in his eyes, the grief. Witnessing years of work unraveled in an instant.
Hannah swells with a bitter pity. The poor moth scratched from his cocoon. She wants to reach for him, for his hand. Soothe the cries. Rock him. Be the cradle they once shared. But she does not. She resents that he probably cares more about that bloody boat than her.
Simon’s foot presses into Jeremy’s spine. He lets out a wet groan. Simon looks to Hannah, his lip curdled with satisfaction. Relishing the attention.
She sees the glances between his boys. The furtive looks between them. A queasy, suspicious vibration. The way they lower their blades an inch, then right themselves and grip tightly when Simon speaks. Trembling.
They are young, acne-scarred and swimming in jackets too large for their bodies. A few skeletal girls stand in the ranks too, with greasy hair and an unsteady gait, as if all the marrow from their bones had already been leeched.
‘Ah can snap his neck if ah like,’ Simon says.
‘Stop,’ says Hannah. ‘Ah’ll tell youse where the water’s hid.’
‘I’ll show ye.’
‘Am no fallin’ fer that trick,’ he scolds.
‘Youse won’t find it otherwise,’ she says. ‘Ye can kill me after ye’ve got it. I dun care.’ She glances at the trembling bundle on the ground that used to be her twin. The egg that grew beside her, but could not be more different—would not be different. In strength or in intestinal fortitude. ‘But let Jeremy go first.’
Simon releases his boot. ‘Poor wee lamb,’ he says, addressing his congregation now. There are snickers in the crowd. ‘See, this here’s the problem with this older generation. They nae have respect for th’ change. They cannae imagine bein’ better than they’s selves. They’d rather stay t’ same and die a big fearty. They’ve nae stomach fer progress. They no wantin’ transformation.’ A few voices murmur in agreement. The rest look frightened. Hannah sees one boy, could not be more than ten, wipe his nose on his gathered sleeve.
‘Ah’ll follow ye te t’ lake,’ Simon says to Hannah.
‘Just yerself n’ me,’ emphasises Hannah.
‘Fine,’ says Simon, pulling out his sharpest knife from his belt. ‘After youse’ he says, indicating the path Southward with his blade.
Hannah rises to her feet and gently points her feet into the grind of the track, like a ballerina. Her favourite book to read with Mammy.
‘If am nae back ‘fore dawn,’ Simon says over his shoulder to his droogs, ‘come fer me ‘n’ level this place te dust.’
The sky looks like oily, black fur. She is rolling beneath it, untethered.
She walks in front of Simon. Her hips aching as they sway. Head bowed. The back of her neck exposed to the cold air.
‘Yer better no be takin’ me on a wild goose chase,’ says Simon, pushing her back with a mighty punch that collapses her knees and sends her to the ground.
She takes the opportunity to reach under the tongue of her boot and extract the sliver of glass she keeps there. A modest triangle of blade. She wraps her fist around it before she rights herself onto the path.
‘Keep movin’,’ he says.
There are no stars. A dim fog of moon illuminating a patch of sky. Somehow making the clouds around it blacker, swamp-like.
She feels her way forward on the path by the weight of her toes, and the rotation of her shadow cast by Simon’s torch behind her.
They walk in silence. She has no desire to hear his voice. It would be the sound of a dead man’s breath, the beating of an Antler Moth’s wings. She wants to stamp it out.
Her throat burns as they get closer to the lake. She can smell the moisture, enlivening the saliva beneath her tongue. Parched, she thinks about the bone in her belly. Maybe it will stay there forever, guiding her. A precious bezoar. She was inside of Mammy, now Mammy is inside of her.
She is the strongest child, then. She knew it all along.
The night is still and weak. They reach the dense shrub that peels apart onto the pebbly path leading to the shore of Good Lake. She squints towards the water, slick and rippleless. The hump of the deer’s flank is gone, as if dissolved by the putridity. The rest is rendering into mud.
‘There,’ she says, pointing towards the low brush. A corner of the metal buckets catches a flush of dim moonlight.
Simon takes a tentative step in front of Hannah. His feet touching lightly on brittle leaves and thistle. He holds his machete in front of his body, tense. She knows he’s expecting a trap. She knows he’s watching the branches for movement, testing the weight of his blade in the air for the tension of cord strung across the path.
But she knows in the shadow of the brush, he cannot see his feet.
He takes another step forward. There’s a loud snap. He stumbles. His weight plummets into the ground. His foot is obscured to the hilt of his knee by dank leaves. Simon cries out with a sharp, deep moan.
‘You fecking bitch,’ he screams. ‘Ah knew youse were up to somemat!’
He swipes his machete at her, but cannot get the desired reach with his leg knotted in the hole. His movement embeds the wooded stakes deeper, tearing muscle and ligament with an indignant cry. Hannah underestimated the lengths a beast would endure once caught in a trap. Still, he loses balance in the process, and strikes the ground with his right elbow.
Hannah watches her brother thrashing in the dead grasses, flaying his own leg. She knows she must boot the fish on the head. Stop the suffering. End the power.
She grips the triangle of glass and lunges it into Simon’s face. The tip pierces his eyelid and the jelly beneath. She is surprised how little resistance it offers in one brutal stroke.
Simon howls. He grabs her leg and unbalances her, striking her to the ground. The wind knocks from her lungs. She feels his hands clawing at her legs, her jacket.
Then, a pain. A gruesome, wet pain on the heel of a tense pressure in her abdomen. Despite her flailing arms, they did not successfully protect her stomach. There, protruding, is the neck of the machete. Her layers of wool feel damp and hot at the same time. She clutches her belly, enclosing her hands around the steel that divides her.
The glass is still embedded in his eye. Even in the dark light, she can see the blood weep across his cheek.
With one swift kick, she drives the shank deep within his socket, splintering into an awn of needles.
She hears a mewl. Simon’s grasp slackens around the folds of her jacket. Limp pincers, seizing nothing. His weight tips off her lower body onto the ground. His pale face catches the moon. Colourless, apart from the crater of bloody viscus wrenched from one eye.
Hannah kicks away from Simon’s body. Each squirm against the ground pierces her from belly to spine. She grasps the hilt of the machete and pulls. The thing is stubborn. It grates her as she drags it out.
The momentum eases. Perhaps she lost consciousness. But before she knows it, she is looking skywards through the tangle of trees, blade in one hand, the other clamped around the bleeding hole in her abdomen.
The bastard tried to take Mammy’s bone from her belly. Because she is chosen. Strongest.
She wonders if Mammy had a real name. She must have. Probably a pretty name. Like a jewel. Or a flower.
She rolls onto her front side, only her hand separating her wet, warm insides from the frozen earth. She crawls. Slowly. Pressing one knee and elbow at a time into the mud and sliding her weight onto them. Then repeating on the other side, creeping, like a lizard.
She can hear the water trickling into the lake. Filling its cavern. A wholeness made impure by the scourge of chemicals and dead animals.
If she can just get to the boat, she thinks. Jeremy must have brought his foolish boat to the lake by now. He must have discovered a trickle of water leading through the unexplored caverns of the mountain, flowing around the munros to the ocean. He’s clever that way. She never should have underestimated him.
‘Jeremy,’ she says. ‘Hoist the sails.’
They will sail to deserted islands. Dig for buried pirate treasure. Mammy will guide them, with her colony of mermaids. Singing.
She crawls down the path to Good Lake. It is waiting for her. The drowned deer and rats and feral cats are rising their heads above the water. They nod, their skeletal jaws threaded with duckweed and bulrush.
She can feel the water beginning to lap at her legs. Steady waves, pulsing and pushing. Just like the ocean. Willing her forward, then back again.
The clouds above her part. And down washes the hungry moon.
So distant, she thinks, far above the scorched earth, and the children just trying to make the best from a sad situation. One day we will all sit down to a feast of vegetables grown by our own hands. We will drink and laugh at years gone by, and the good fortune of clean air we breathe.
But not today. Today, Hannah cauterised the foolish chaos made by her little brother prophet. And that is enough.
A light breeze whispers through the dead reeds encircling the lake.
She hopes it will be enough.