Authors: Jack Lasenby
Our clothes and gear reeked of the charnel, that stench of greasy smoke. We had the donkeys, the animals, Bar and Mak. We had a tent. I felt rich, as if something good was about to happen, yet aware of loss. We could not see far for clouds, but Hagar said we were going in the right direction.
“How do you know?”
“All my life I have been making the Journey, Ish. And Bar knows the way. We only have to follow.” Bar led, the sheep behind him, the goats strung out, and we came along on the donkeys. Mak jogged on three legs.
“I wish I could carry my lame one like that,” I told him, and he looked up and whined back. Mak was the pick of Karly Campy’s dogs. Rose was kidnapped, our people dead, but Hagar and I were alive. We were the Travellers now. I smelled rain on the air. Mak looked up and grinned as if he could tell it was coming, too.
As the light strengthened there came the same terrible shout I had heard in the western hills. It jolted my head. The monsters were hunting us.
“Gallop into the hills!” Hagar cried. “They’ll just find an old woman with a few animals.”
It was not bravery made me stay. I was too scared, couldn’t do anything else. “Fool!” Hagar spat. “Where’s your bad temper now? Karly Campy would have got away.”
Whether they had seen our tracks we never knew. There was the shout, nothing else. We travelled on at the pace of the animals, and two hawks flew low, crying to each other, dodging, twisting, a sure sign of rain said Hagar.
The first drops were light, hardly noticeable on my hands,
then it teemed. It worked through my cloak. I turned up my face and tasted it, felt it drive against my cheeks. My hair straggled. Rain sluiced our little column. It washed away the greasy taint of smoke and cooked flesh. It ran and joined in rivulets that would carve down the gullies, swell in streams, and scour the dust of the valley floor. Already it would be beating on the corpses, washing away the ashes of the Travellers’ last encampment. Wild dogs, dust storms, sun, wind, and rain would destroy all evidence there had once been a massacre in that airless corner.
“So there were monsters living in the west?” I said.
Hagar nodded. “People,” she grunted, and mumbled something to herself. “That place,” she said at last, “it’s name is Tayamoot.” She swayed on her donkey. I wondered how long she could last.
All that day we rode through the rain and camped late without a fire in case their dogs smelled it. I made sure Hagar was warm and pulled the tent over us. “Are you all right?” I asked her next morning. She got on her donkey and rode silent, munching her jaws. By the time the light came up she had arranged her spindle and was working at it.
There was fresh growth, enough for the animals to feed on the move. We travelled early, sheltered, and moved on and camped before dark. The cool night air was pleasant. Best of all, the sun was kinder here.
Hagar knew the names of the hills and places where we camped. We came down and grazed the animals in a green valley she called Teekawit. At daybreak I hunted hares and collected rabbits from my snares. Bar and Mak had been trained not to run after them. I got all the meat they needed while they guarded our flock for, always, just over the edge of the skyline, wild dogs waited their chance to run and slash. They had hung on our trail ever since the massacre at Tayamoot.
I remember a large pool where the animals panted beneath
trees in the noon shade while the dogs played with me in the water. Hagar sat under the tent, its sides rolled for the draught. With her twisted old fingers she wove new snares and taught me to braid them. “For when I am not here,” she said.
“Where are you going?” I asked, and she chuckled dryly. Mine were coarse, but her snares were slim lines that ran like water. While I rested or stared into the fire at night, she was forever making something, spinning, sewing, braiding longer, heavier snares.
“Now there are more trees, we’ll see more deer,” she said. “You must learn to snare them, Ish. Karly Campy knew how.”
“Karly Campy could do this; Karly Campy could do that,” I grumbled under my breath.
“I watched him,” said Hagar. “If you set it in the right place, the snare tightens around its neck, the deer loses its balance, and over it goes, crack!” She cackled her old laugh, and I laughed with her. She knew so much, Hagar! And she still told her old stories.
We had several bundles of rabbit and hare skins, and she taught me to keep them dry, to air them and beat out any moths that tried to lay their eggs. When we came to the right trees, she said, we would take the bark to cure and tan the skins. I wanted to learn how to do it. Much of being a man was learning things I’d never thought about when I was young, probably because the grown-ups did them for me. Now there was only Hagar and me, we had to do everything ourselves.
We camped one night by a stream below a grassy basin. Dense, dry scrub burned fiercely on our fire.
“That’s where you could set a snare.” Hagar pointed at a deer track worn down a bank. “When the cord tightens the deer will pull back its head or try to jump clear. Either way it will lose its balance and fall.”
“Won’t the snare break?”
“Not if you tie it to a springy branch. We can use deer skin, and I like the meat.” She smacked her lips.
In the long dusk, I tied the snares to springy branches. The twigs were browsed till every sign of green growth was nipped off. That was why the scrub looked gnarled. Any growth it made was despite deer and wild goats. The snares caught nothing that night. Hagar pressed her lips together in what I now knew was her smile and said, “You have to work snares, shift them around. Deer don’t like getting caught up, so they won’t go sticking their heads into a snare, not if they see it first. To snare a deer you must think like a deer.”
I reset two snares on well-used tracks and found better places for others, leading the braided cord up a branch here, along a trunk there, camouflaging them with wisps of twigs and a few leaves. Then I thought about my scent and wondered how to avoid leaving it.
“You can’t help touching the branches where you set it,” said Hagar. “Touch as little as you must, and be quick. The longer you’re there, the more scent you leave.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I used my eyes, Ish. I listened to the men talk. Try washing your hands and rub them on the ground before you handle the snares.” She laughed again.
Sometimes her dry old laugh got on my nerves. At other times I laughed with her. Even though her son was dead, even though he had left her behind, Hagar enjoyed living, worked at liking it. She did not just accept things. I wanted to be more like her, then I remembered my father and Rose and wondered was I forgetting them.
One night a hind put its head through a snare, somersaulted, and snapped its neck. The snare was so tight it was hidden inside a fold of skin around the neck. I ran down to tell Hagar.
She rode a donkey up the hill while I led another. “A
yearling! It’ll be tender. Cut its throat. We’ll bleed what we can out of it to help the meat last. Now run your knife right around the neck, and we’ll skin it.”
Hagar showed me how to turn it on its back, and where to make the cuts just through the skin. The first one from the deer’s chin all the way to the hole under the tail. Next the legs, a circular cut around the shank, and a long cut from there into the brisket.
“Now you’ve freed it around the lower legs, get your hands between the skin and the flesh and work it off the belly. That’s it!” It took me ages, but my hands started to do the right things almost of their own accord. “Pull from the rump up to the neck. It’ll come.”
“My fingers are tired.”
“Karly Campy would have it off by now.”
“Oh, he would!”
“Just do it, Ish!”
“It’s all right for you. I’m doing all the work.”
“Young fool, I’m teaching you something important.” Hagar leaned forward.
“I can manage.” It had been difficult working the skin off the lower legs, the brisket, and the under side of the neck, but now it came away with a crackling sound and swung free of the deer, a whole skin.
“The more you do, the easier it’ll get. You’ll have to learn to shoot them with a bow. They’re easier to skin warm, and the meat’s better bled at once.
“Cut there,” she said, bending a back leg out from the body. “Where the meat’s stretched. The knife feels the joint, doesn’t it?” There was a crack as the blade opened the ball joint in the deer’s hip. “Right through.” She lay the leg on the skin. “Now, take off the shoulder before we turn it over.” She drew back the front leg. “Keep cutting,” said Hagar. “There’s almost no joint.
“It’s like your own shoulder blade, joined by muscles and
sinews. You wonder, when you butcher a deer, how the shoulder stays on. It’s the same with a donkey. That’s why you’ve got to be careful, driving them downhill with a load. It pays to let them pick their way.”
I rolled the carcass over and took off the other legs. “The backsteaks,” said Hagar. “Cut along the spine, then turn and run the blade out over the ribs. See how it’s coming off, nothing wasted.”
The two long backsteaks lay on top of the legs. Hagar showed me where to slice between the lower ribs and pull out the kidneys, then how to dig around and cut out the tongue.
“Open it up and take out the heart and liver,” she said. I slit the gut open but cut too deep and the paunch stunk. “That’s all right,” said Hagar. “You’re learning.”
“At least you didn’t say Karly Campy wouldn’t have cut it!” Hagar laughed, and I had to grin.
The donkey reared as I began loading the meat in the panniers, but Hagar held its halter. I returned for the carcass, cut it through the spine, as Hagar had told me, and packed it down to the camp as well as all the guts the dogs could eat.
“Better to feed them from your own hand than let them feed themselves off a carcass,” said Hagar, “or they forget who their master is.” I remembered my father’s remark about keeping trust with your dogs. “Also,” she said, “never leave food for wild dogs.”
She had already sliced thin the flesh off the two shoulders and draped it over some boulders. Flies clustered, but it dried before they could blow it. I helped Hagar slice the hindquarters and backsteaks. “It’s lighter for carrying,” she said, “and it’ll keep. Fresh, the flies will ruin most before we can eat it.”
She had the heart, liver, tongue, and kidneys bubbling a thick brew. “To help you grow into a strong man,” she said.
The gorged dogs watched as we ate.
I spread the skin in the shade. “It’s better dried slowly, so it keeps its shape and doesn’t wrinkle and roll up,” said Hagar. “You can weigh down the edges with stones, or they’ll curl and flies will crawl inside and blow it where it’s moist.”
“Won’t they blow the rest of it?”
“Not once it’s dry. You shake deer skins out each day, just like your rabbit skins, till you can cure them. Moist spots, that’s what maggots like.”
I wanted to learn, but was irritated with following her instructions, most of all with hearing what Karly Campy would have done. I wanted to do things for myself, not because Hagar told me to. “You know so much!” I said grudgingly.
“I’ve just lived longer.”
By evening the meat had dried hard. Hagar said another day’s sun would finish it off. We collected it in baskets and swung them from a high branch. The skin we hung over a rope. Next day we spread out the meat like black leaves in the sun. That afternoon Hagar added wild onions and several green herbs, and the rich, thick stew tasted even better. I watched her cooking because I wanted to learn everything possible. I didn’t realise she was teaching me how to survive.
We moved on with two rustling baskets of venison chips and the deer skin. The Journey led down a stream that ran south. Hagar called it the Onger. When I found a safe ford she laughed. “Why bother crossing?” she asked. “This side would look just as green from over there. We’ve lost our people,” Hagar said, “but we don’t have to search for grass.”
“I thought we had to keep crossing to get enough for the animals.”
“We did when there were more of us.” She laughed again.
“Why laugh?” I asked, annoyed. It was a good ford.
Hagar turned away. “Would you rather cry, Ish?” Laughter seemed to work for her.
That night I tried to see Rose and my father, their faces, and to smile as I saw them. I curled up the corners of my mouth and forced a laugh like a mynah’s squawk. All it did was wake Hagar. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I tucked my knees up into my stomach, and tried to sleep with my arms around them, as I used to sleep with Rose when I was little, but I cried and wished I hadn’t thought of her.
As we wandered behind the animals next day, Hagar said, “My first baby was a girl I named Hetta. The rains did not come to the Whykatto that winter. We were short of food, so she was left behind. The same thing happened with my second baby, another daughter. The Travellers needed boys. Girls would grow up and have more children than we could feed. My first son was about as big as you, Ish, when he drowned in the river. The next died of the coughing sickness. Only Karly Campy lived.” She grimaced.
Another day she talked about her father. “He got old and could not keep up so he was left behind. One morning he sat among the stones and watched the Travellers ford the Tungaro River. I looked back, quickly, so nobody saw me. Something fluttered amongst the stones the other side of the ford. Nobody mentioned his name again.
“The cold killed him, or the wild dogs. Had I stayed with him I would have died, and Karly Campy. He was a baby then. I kept myself busy looking after him. Next year when we crossed the Tungaro there was no sign someone had died there.” She glanced at me, her black eyes shining among wrinkles. “Travellers leave no memorials, Ish.”
The treeless western hills and the Whykatto, parched brown and white, were well behind us now. North again Orklun lay still under the brazen sun. Hagar said a Traveller never looked back, yet she had looked back at her father. I looked back every day in case Rose and my father were following. There were more trees here. We had no more downpours but showers gave lavish growth. The animals put on condition and travelled fast.
“It’s much easier riding the donkey and walking just when I feel like it,” said Hagar. “Now I feel as if I will go on for ever.”
“Don’t you miss the others?”
“Oh, yes, but there’s something about just two of us making the Journey.” I waited. Sure enough, she laughed.
Hagar’s face had lines like the valleys we followed, furrows in the earth’s skin, but her black eyes snapped with life. She told me the names of the plants we picked and dried.
“You must learn how to use them,” she said. “And to weave. Weaving is important for a Traveller. This rock lichen is good for dyeing wool, and the bark of this tree. Start collecting it here each Journey. When you need it, you’ll have plenty. Dry, it weighs nothing. This bark you take from
the sunny side of the tree because its virtue is greater. Some you take off the southern side. I’ll show you those, too.
“Parsley!” she said. “Taste and remember where we found it. Look at the shape of the leaf. It’s good to eat fresh, and you dry it for carrying. Put it in stews and soups. If you have a cut that turns bad, boil the roots and drink the water. It cleans the blood.”
Spinach, beet, carrots she showed me, many foods and herbs. “If we didn’t have to follow the Journey,” said Hagar, “we could take seeds and plant them, live somewhere without travelling.”
“In one place?”
“Long before we became the Travellers, our ancestors called themselves Farmers.”
“But the Whykatto’s too hot in summer, and it’s too cold to live here in winter.”
“That’s why we are the Travellers,” said Hagar. “The Farmers had animals and were Gardeners, too. They planted seeds and grew crops. There was enough rain for grass without travelling. Nobody was left behind.”
“How do you know?”
“The walls, Ish!” She sounded angry. “The walls were where they lived. You’ve seen Hammertun. Orklun was many times bigger.”
“There must have been lots of people!”
Hagar laughed. “More than you can imagine. Think of all the walls and then think of all the dead.”
“I’d rather be a Traveller.” I thought awhile. “When did they live, all those people?”
“So long ago we don’t know anything more about them. We might be able to do it again. You would have to find somewhere that would feed enough animals and grow enough of those plants. You would have to store enough to feed you and the animals through the dry spells. Think of all the things you could keep if you didn’t have to make the Journey.”
Her sharp eyes watched me. “Think of it.” We had robbed a beehive and were finding a place in the panniers for two cooking bowls of honey, and a great ball of beeswax. “Everything we need we have to carry.” Hagar nodded under her black scarf, and we followed the sheep across the shoulder of a hill. The goats ranged above, the dogs turning down the more adventurous, looking back to us.
“The dogs are your legs,” said Hagar. “You should always have a pup coming on, learning from the old. That’s easier than teaching it yourself. We have plenty of milk. Bar and Mak will accept a young pup. And it will grow up knowing its master.”
“How do you know when there’s a bitch with a litter?”
“The other wild dogs will let it take food from them.”
I had already spotted a hungry-looking wild bitch who ran low to the ground. She didn’t join in the usual band that followed us yet seemed to belong to them. By her dragging dugs I thought she must have pups, but the other dogs didn’t feed her.
“Put out some milk,” said Hagar. “She’ll come for it, and you can track her to her litter.” I was unsuccessful, then Hagar saw the bitch and said, “She’s lost her pups.”
We forded the Onger River where the Travellers always crossed. It spread wide and shallow, discoloured from rain upstream. As Hagar held the rest with Mak, I put the animals across, one by one. Bar guarded them on the far bank. When there were only a few sheep left, Hagar rode over.
By the time Mak brought the last two sheep down I could smell smoke. Hagar had the tent up, the donkeys unloaded and grazing. The wild dogs that followed us were out of sight. I thought of putting the sheep across separately, but my leg was tired. Besides, they would be keen to join the others. Mak drove them into the ford. The rain upstream must be heavy. The rising water was spreading over stones which had been dry earlier.
The rest of the sheep had struck out once I’d pushed them in. These two turned and swept downstream. I pulled one out, and Mak dragged it up the beach. The other, a fine young ewe, drowned under a jam of driftwood, held by the press of water.
Mak helped pull the ewe on to a sandbank where I skinned and gutted it, still warm. Exhausted, I carried the meat to camp and trudged back with a basket for the sodden skin. I was too tired to eat the sweet mutton. My leg ached.
“You’ve done well,” Hagar said. “Even when we were all together we still lost sheep and even goats.”
The river, a lighter ribbon in the dark, roared against the log-jam.
“If I’d brought them across one by one, they’d both be alive.”
“The river charges a toll. Better a sheep’s life than yours, Ish.”
If I had died, Hagar would die, too. The sheep and goats would be eaten by wild dogs. Mak and Bar would forget us. Still I regretted that one sheep. Next time I would take longer getting the animals across. And I’d wait for the river to go down. Floods often begin upstream, out of sight. There was more to river crossings than I had thought. Perhaps, I should sacrifice an old animal, a sick one, to the river now and then.
When we came to where the Onger joined the Wunger River I realised why we had crossed it further up. Even my father could not have got us across this river. Its waves, its huge voice, were scary. I asked Hagar where it went.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “See, there are the walls of this place, Towmranoo.”
“These old names, what do they mean?”
“Towmranoo,” said Hagar, “means ‘The Place Where We Turn East and Climb into the Mountains’. Wunger? Well,
that means ‘The River that Eats People’.”
“All those walls. There must have been a lot of people?”
“They weren’t Travellers.”
“Perhaps they stopped here because they couldn’t cross the river.”
“Perhaps.” Hagar shrugged, but I wondered about the people of the walls. At Hammertun, south of the Narrower Ford, the walls stretched for two or three days. “It is not a safe place,” my father used to say. He must have been thinking of Orklun, too. Its walls must have gone on and on and on.
Where a stream came in, we turned east into tree-covered hills that rose higher and higher. One evening I chopped some green-tipped scrub for the goats to browse and left Hagar and Mak watching the sheep while I went back to where I had tracked a bitch to her litter under a log.
“You don’t want trouble with the pack,” Hagar said. “Grab the strongest and get away.”
Bar hung back, circling uneasily as I drove off the bitch with stones. I stuffed a pup into the basket, and she came for me, but I dropped her with a crack from my stick. Bar rushed in then, and I ran, whistling him off.
The pup, a brown and white bitch, pissed down my tunic. She yelped, but Hagar dabbed milk on her nose until she stopped crying to lick it off.
“You can’t do anything for her now,” Hagar said when I told her about the mother.
I woke to the wild dogs’ howling. My sling loaded, I walked around our flock with Bar and Mak and thought guiltily about the bitch and the other pups.
Our one rode in a basket on Hagar’s donkey. It was soon eating rabbit meat and liked to chew the venison chips, hard as bone.
“Good for her teeth,” said Hagar.
Nip grew and scrambled over Bar and Mak, rushing, yapping, chewing their ears, their tails. Mak growled deep in his throat and moved away, but Bar looked embarrassed and put up with anything she did. I played with her, rolling, barking, chasing her and being chased.
“A fair price for a good pup,” Hagar said. “One ewe.”