Authors: Jack Lasenby
There was only a mist of dry stems, hardly worth eating, so we reached the willows by the Whykatto River before the others. Speckly was hungry. She must have crossed the ford many times. She might have seen her mother and father swept away as they got old. If she remembered, she didn’t show it. She complained, “Maa! Maa!” and the others joined in. Whitey and Jokey bunted me.
“Silly goats,” I told them. “It’s not my fault the winter rains stopped too soon,” but they knocked me with their hard heads. “There’ll be grass the other side.” It was funny, I didn’t ever lose my temper with the animals.
Goats might not remember their parents drowning in the ford, but they know when they’re hungry. They licked my legs and hands.
“They’re after the salt on your skin,” my father once said.
“Huh,” said Rose. “They wouldn’t find you such good licking if you washed.”
There would be rain in the south. Summer in the mountains is good, the air sweet. There are trees for shade, and the sun loses its anger. The flocks feed from basin to basin, growing fat and not wanting to move on, but winter up high is too cold. Before it came we would return to the Whykatto plain for the winter rains and the grass.
I drew a mountain in the sand by the river and tried to show the strange stuff called snow. If I’d had a burnt bit of wood, I could have drawn it on the walls by the ford.
“All right, Jokey.” He was black with a white face. His horns were getting long, and he was bossy. “I know you’re hungry.”
I shinned up a willow and pulled myself out so the branches dipped. The goats jogged on their hind legs, reaching for the young shoots. I slid further out, and they stripped the branches, dragging off the green leaves and bark. I’d tried them, but even the softest tip tasted bitter to me.
I shifted from tree to tree until they were satisfied. Even then they foraged for bits they’d dropped. They chewed, bottom jaws sliding, devil eyes gazing at me. They knew I’d always find them something to eat.
I wove branches together, sprawled on their swaying net. To the west was a hard, blue strip where the sun was a yellow furnace that could still blind, but I kept my eyes away.
Rose once told me about a boy who was warned not to look at the sun, but he made wings to fly there. They didn’t work, so he made bigger wings for a horse and rode up the sky. The sun roared. The horse’s tail caught on fire. It bucked off the boy, and dived to a river, but the boy floated in mid-air, staring at the sun till his eyes burned to black holes. Rose said he burned crisp like a bit of meat dropped in the fire. I woke crying that night, and she had to hold me. She wouldn’t ever tell me that part of the story again. I wondered if she told me or I imagined it, a boy falling out of the sky, smoking, turning crisp as burnt meat? Rose laughed and talked about something else, but I’m sure she told me once, otherwise why did I remember it?
Bouncing on the hammock of branches, keeping my eyes away from the western sky, I heard a hawk cry, “Kek! Kek!” There’s usually another around when they call like that. Then I heard the pattering and cries of the big mobs coming down.
Before starting, my father had warned everyone. The Narrower Ford wasn’t savage with rocks and waves. It was dangerous because the middle channels were deep, the bottom slippery with long weeds that could drag you under. It was the first ford, and people were a bit careless. But everybody said Hawk knew the fords like the back of his
hand. He’d been leading the Journey for years, getting everyone across safe.
Tody’s sheep fanned out over the shingle. Others straggled down: Moy, Heka, Jonny, and Mor. They were all older than me. Then I heard Rose’s dog, Lik. Her lead goat, Berta, trotted across the stones and nuzzled Speckly. I slid down the tree, my right foot feeling for the ground. If I could reach it without having to let go, it was going to be a good crossing. If I had to drop the last bit, it’d be bad. I stretched, swung by my hands, and something grabbed my ankles. Somebody tickled my feet. I daren’t let go but couldn’t hold on for laughing.
“So you were going to drop on me?” said Rose. Bar and Lik barked.
“Let go!” I dropped and ran screaming because she’d catch and tickle me. And because I was laughing, looking back, and running, I got caught up in Karly Campy’s mob. He cursed me, and I cursed and swore back at him. I knew better. You never run through a flock. He’d complain to my father and tell him what I’d said. I hid behind the pack-donkeys coming down while Rose stopped and talked to Karly Campy.
“Rose!” I yelled. “Don’t you want to chase me?” but she was too busy smiling and talking to him. I got my goats together. If she wanted to talk to Karly Campy, then it served her right if her goats got mixed up with the others. I had called her.
The rest of the men came down in the dust of the big mobs, dogs barking, donkeys trotting. The women came in groups, leading the children and the newborn animals.
Karly Campy’s mother, Old Hagar, walked at the back. She jabbered to herself, raising and lowering a spindle, teasing off a strand of wool from the fleece around her left arm, running it through her fingers, the weight of the spindle drawing it into a thread, winding as the points twirled.
By evening she’d have spun several balls of wool.
Old Hagar always wore two bags. In one she put bits of lichen off trees and rock. Wisps of wool and hair that snagged on twigs and thorns she put in the other. Little children were scared of Hagar, but I liked listening to the stories and songs she told and sang whether there was anyone to hear them or not. Her hands had dark spots on the back.
You had to walk close to hear her stories, ready to run because the big boys said Hagar was a witch. Mor said she could frizzle you up with her eyes, as if you’d been killed by the sun. Once, Tody said it was time to leave the old witch behind.
“She spins a lot,” said my father, “good, even yarn. She eats nothing much, gets herself across the fords, cooks. She knows where the herbs grow for doctoring the animals and us. She knows all the old songs and stories. Hagar’s more use than a lot of people half her age.”
Rose told me our father saved Hagar’s life, saying that. “When he sticks up for someone, there’s no more talk of them being left behind. The old and the sick,” said Rose, “they know when their time’s up. Hagar’s useful, she knows a lot, so our father defended her, but some day she won’t be able to keep up, and she’ll be left behind. It happens to us all.”
“Is that what happened to our mother?”
“She died giving birth to you.”
“Will I be left behind?”
“Not as long as I’m here, Ish.”
“I won’t ever leave you behind either, Rose.”
Rose, our father, and me, we’d never die. There was no end to our Journey that went around and around in a great circle.
Now my father walked past, saying something to Rose, patting my shoulder, smiling. “Good luck,” he said quietly. He entered the ford and helped the women across to start
calling the animals. He came back for the pack donkeys, and then the first goats. We had to wait for the main mobs to turn the stones, dislodge the weeds, and make the bottom safer.
There was something wrong with one of the women, Jonny’s mother. She wasn’t just pregnant or she wouldn’t have been riding a donkey. My father took its halter and led it into the first of the two deep channels. The donkey seemed to lose touch, swimming rather than feeling its way, then the danger was over. It followed my father across the boulder bank to the next channel, long ears flicking as it decided where to step. I like watching donkeys think things out.
The woman cried out in the second deep channel, grasped, and was gone. The donkey rolled. My father surfaced downstream with the draggle of wet clothes that was Jonny’s mother, fighting towards the other shingle bank. Two young men he had put there ran into the shallows, took the woman, and my father was already catching and quietening the donkey. Most of us would only cross once. He would go backwards and forwards until the last animal, the last person, was across. Whenever an animal baulked or somebody slipped, he was there. I could hear his calm voice, see him at the centre.
He smiled and beckoned. My goats clumped tight, I followed Rose’s. Jokey and Tarky maaed, meaning they were unsure, and the others were silent and looked at me, but they followed as I led into the crossing. I had to swim a few strokes in the deep channel, strangely free, as if my leg didn’t matter. Then I felt the bottom and called my goats together.
Several young men and women waited downstream to catch anyone that whirled away towards the rapids. They were wet through, splashing and yelling. One of them grinned, and I tried to nod and wink back.
“Cross with me, Ish,” Rose said at the next channel, but I led my flock in, not looking at her. Almost across, Speckly
cried. Her kid was sweeping away. I must keep going or they would all turn and follow me downstream. Somebody pulled out the kid, and it ran crying to join us. Water splattered the stones which were still warm enough to dry at once. Then there were three shallow channels we just splashed through. I had led my first flock across the Narrower Ford! Getting them over safely mattered, not just to me but to the people who had watched to see how I got on.
Rose waved, smiled, and strode up a gully. Our goats were already feeding, Lik and Bar circling. This side had not been grazed for a year. The sun was going down behind the western hills. The moon would be early tonight.
There was some trouble down in the ford. The sheep were always difficult. The mass of them dwindled to a narrow line making the crossing. Now and again I’d hear a bleat, a shout, a bark, but the noises were drowned by the river and a sound I hadn’t heard all winter: wind in the grass.
Our clothes dried. Long before the moon was low in the western sky we would follow the whistles, turn, and lead our flocks down beside the other river, the Wiper, where the women would have put up the tents. Lik and Bar would keep watch for wild dogs as we ate, and the men would take turns once the animals were bedded down.
At last we saw the big walls our father had described, worked west at the whistles, and joined the other flocks and mobs streaming down. Even before I saw the red roof of our tent looking black in the moonlight, I heard Rose’s scream. I pushed through. The Narrower Ford had taken its toll, not the youngest, not the weakest, not old Hagar.
I knew I must not cry. Through the hubbub, voices shouted. A young donkey had floundered in the deepest crossing. Hawk went to help. The donkey had rolled, kicked his head, and my father disappeared beneath the black water.
Bad luck is catching, so people kept away. When I wanted to see my father, Rose said his body was lost in the weeds. I lost my temper and hit her so she cried, Rose, my sister whom I loved.
“You lying shit!” I spat. She ran after me. People watched, but nobody interfered. Bad luck is catching.
Around the camp-fire there were laments and praises for Hawk. I was old enough to hear the worry in the voices of some, the different tone of those who knew they would continue as they had always done. Leaders came and went; the Journey had to be made. Karly Campy sat silent. Rose led me to our tent half-asleep so I did not hear the arguments that followed the lamentations.
I woke knowing the Journey had started. Rose’s eyes were gummed up, lashes stuck together. I tried to brush off the crusty stuff without disturbing her, but she was already awake. She put her arms around me and cried before I remembered.
Our father’s mug and plate stayed in the basket. There was a gap by our fire. As if we were invisible, people did not speak. “They’ve decided,” Rose said, but I did not know what she meant. We ate, took down our tent, loaded our donkeys, and waited ready.
Karly Campy stood in the middle of the encampment and gave the orders for the morning march. I wanted to go back, to look for my father. What if he had dragged himself out on the shingle and needed help? Fixing a strand of wool to her spindle, Old Hagar saw me turn. She shook her head and whispered hoarsely, “Travellers don’t look back.”
Karly Campy must have signalled because Rose nodded and moved off behind the others. We had to make the most of the early hours before the sun became angry.
During the next few days our animals disappeared amongst Karly Campy’s. Our tent was pitched beside Karly Campy’s. He stood in our father’s place and gave the orders. One night Rose cried and fought but was dragged into his tent by his older wives. I shouted and struggled. In the end Karly Campy himself came out. I bit him when he put his hand over my mouth, and he knocked me unconscious. I slept that night between Lik and and Bar, with the animals.
Next morning, sore and hungry, I waited to be told what to do. Rose helped strike Karly Campy’s tent and load his donkeys. In the half-dark she dropped something near me, and hissed, “Keep behind, out of sight!” She ran to swing a bedroll on to a donkey’s back and caught the rope somebody threw across. The food she had dropped I stuffed inside my tunic. She turned away and would not look at me. I thought she was angry with me for losing my temper last night.
Karly Campy split the Travellers to move in separate groups. In three days they were to join in an encampment, west of the numerous walls called Hammertun. I tried to follow Rose, but a mob of sheep came between us. Bar and Lik disappeared. People kept forcing me back. Dogs snarled. I was pushed to the rear, alone but for Old Hagar.
That was where Karly Campy trotted back on a donkey and found me. Determined not to lose my temper, I stood and waited for his orders. He leaned down and punched me in the face. “Piss off, cripple!” he shouted. “Nobody wants you hanging round.”
I grabbed for a stone, but he tore away my sling, knocked me to the ground with his staff. He rode ahead, passing Old Hagar without a word. Mor and Heka appeared and
threw stones, chasing me back the way we had come. I was being left behind. The same people my father had helped, saved in the crossings, they had agreed with Karly Campy that I must be left behind because of my leg.
Mor and Heka were afraid they might get left behind themselves and soon gave up. I sat bleeding where their stones had cut. Where Karly Campy had struck my head, the bruise felt huge and hot, but I had to keep touching even though it hurt. Rose’s bread and meat had grass and dung stuck on it, but I brushed them off and ate, snivelling.
I could not go back. Nothing lived in the Whykatto when only the sun raged, and the streams and water-holes dried up. North of that was the silence of Orklun. I followed the Travellers.
This time Mor and Heka waited behind a wall with Jonny. I tried to fight, but two held me while the third punched. They took turns. Luckily I fell under a leaning wall, shaded from the sun. It was dark when I woke. I knew Karly Campy had sent the big boys to thrash me till I stopped following. That’s what Rose had tried to tell me. I cannot describe what I felt at realising I was left behind. It was a different sort of pain from the one that made me whimper as I moved.
I crawled further under the wall, crying, shivering because I was hungry, cold. How many days and nights I do not know. I was too sore to move, too desolate to do anything but scratch some lines into the clay: a man hitting a boy, a hawk flying above them. I do not think my mind worked very well.
Howling woke me, eerie between the hills. The wild dogs which haunted the Journey. I tucked myself further under. I knew what happened to anyone left behind.
My bruised ribs hurt as I took a breath. I knew it was all right to lose my temper this time. “Garn!” I shouted in as ugly a voice as I could manage. The dog scrabbled, stuffed itself under, pushed its face hard into mine, opened its hot
mouth, and licked me.
“Bar?” Face wet with my tears and his tongue I held him and rocked and sobbed. “Oh, Bar!”
When I wedged myself under the wall I was willing to give up. With Bar there, I was alive: hungry, cold, but alive. He was so warm, his body strong under his long black coat. It was a while before I realised he was carrying a pack.
Any animal big enough to carry something is useful to a Traveller. Our dogs often carried a split sack. Bar must have back-tracked to find me after he was loaded. In one side of the bag was a springy stick, a leather cord, a flat piece of bone with a recess worn in its middle, and a straight stick with a charred point. There were five lengths of plaited cord, narrow and strong. There was a heavy knife in a sheath on a broad belt. I felt a rush of warmth as I thought Rose had loaded and sent Bar.
The belt, an old one of my father’s, went around me almost twice. It was so wide I knew at once why Rose had chosen it. The knife needed sharpening, but I could find the right sort of stone. In the other side of the bag was bread and cooked meat.
I stuffed it into my mouth, spluttering and saying, “Thank you, Rose.” I had to make myself share with Bar. My father said you must keep trust with your dog.
I untied the pack off Bar’s back, searched the bags again, and found a spear head. There were two bone needles and a ball of twine. Then I saw the pack was a heavy coat. Rose had folded the sleeves and stitched up the two sides. I undid the stitches, saving the thread, and slipped it on. It was my father’s. I belted it around myself, warm and safe.
I hugged Bar again, and he licked my face. “You saved my life, you and Rose.” He turned, excited, thumping me with his tail.
Where a gully unfolded, I found seepage enough for us both. Bar lapped splashily. “You’re a messy drinker,” I told
him. Suddenly the world seemed friendly. Even the brown hills seemed to open their arms.
The sun was rising when we camped up a gully where Bar sniffed at some rabbit runs. I looped the lengths of plaited cord into running nooses, tied their ends to pegs. It took time to find good sets. We crawled under the shade of a toppled wall.
“Tonight,” I told Bar, “we’ll stop earlier and make a proper camp.” Hawk always sent someone ahead to set up the tents. Still stiff from my bruises I cuddled up against Bar. It wasn’t like sleeping beside Rose, but it was good smelling him, hearing his snuffle.
I woke alone. The sun was long down. One of my snares had caught a rabbit but something had stolen it, leaving torn skin. I had seen hawks seize rabbits, but they wouldn’t take them from a snare. Hawks kill for themselves. Empty-handed I turned back down the gully.
A dog scuttled from under the wall, not Bar but a sloping brute that cringed as it ran, my precious leather cord hanging from its mouth. I cursed myself and chased, throwing stones, so angry I tripped and skinned both knees.
“Bar!” I called and whistled. It fluted thin between hills. He must have gone back to Rose. Despite my father’s coat, it was bitterly cold. My knees stung. “You mustn’t lose your temper,” I said aloud. “It makes you hurt yourself.”
I wound the snares, put them in my pocket, checked I had everything, and searched the ground. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be beaten a second time. That was why I climbed the steep slope above.
Under the rising moon, hills like giants’ knucklebones tumbled west with here and there a dark fold of scrub like the hair in a grown-up’s armpit. “You might survive in the western hills by hunting,” my father had said, “but there’s not enough feed for the animals. The Travellers must follow the valleys. There is no life for us elsewhere.”
High on the slope I turned and looked the way the Travellers had gone. Something moved. I froze. The moving blur grew into a man and three boys returning along the Travellers’ tracks. As they came closer, I could tell who they were. If one glanced up he would see me in the bright moonlight.
They had dogs. The wind would carry my scent. Up a dry, clay trench I wriggled over the crest. That I had climbed the hill and spotted them first was good luck.