Authors: Jack Lasenby
“If you had any sense,” I muttered, “you’d want to stay at the Hawk Cliffs.” But Bar trotted ahead. The sheep ran and fed. Mak and Nip sniffed every rock and stump. The goats snatched leaves and tried to outwit the dogs. Although laden high, the donkeys moved fast. They seemed pleased at taking up the Journey.
“We’ll be back next year,” Hagar said.
I grunted, “How do you know?”
“When there were more of us we had to travel further east. Now there’s just us, we can go back to the Hawk Cliffs.”
“I wanted to stay there.”
“Don’t blame me.”
“I’m not blaming anybody.”
“There’s no need to be bad-tempered.”
“I’m not bad-tempered!”
She urged her donkey on. “I’ll show her,” I grumbled to Dragon. “I won’t talk to her.” I was sick of being pushed around. At the Hawk Cliffs there was feed for months yet. And winter mightn’t be so bad. There were the hot springs and lots of firewood.
“Mean old bitch!” I muttered at Hagar’s back. Her black scarf and dress were already white with pumice dust. “She always has to have her way.”
For days we followed grass strips between pines. I spoke only to Dragon. Hagar was too busy singing her silly songs, telling her stupid old stories, to notice.
“She doesn’t care,” I complained to Dragon. “I’ll fix her. I can get all the deer and rabbits I want. We don’t need her, do we?”
One afternoon we came down a valley clouded with steam. Water seethed and bubbled. In dreadful holes boiling mud heaped itself in swollen puddles, spat, and hissed. The ground trembled as if it might crack. The air stunk of rotten eggs. I walked closer to Hagar.
The dogs kept the animals bunched. I tugged Hagar’s dress and pointed at footprints in the dust. She looked but said nothing. We wound through thick scrub to an open space where Bar held the animals. On a circle of white sand that had been swept, we spread the rugs and blankets, the bags and mats, the tunics and jerkins Hagar had woven, even my wretched attempts at weaving.
In the sand nearby, Hagar drew pictures of two long knives, big enough to slash branches and grass. “They’ll be handy,” she said aloud to herself. “And we need a couple of cooking pots. That boy’s skinning knife is wearing down. He’ll need another before long.” She spoke as if I wasn’t there.
“And another axe.” She drew it. “But it’s arrowheads we need, lots, and some spear heads. And shears. That boy should have had the sense to remember them at Tayamoot.”
She drew a copy of everything we wanted. Beside each drawing she made marks. She laid down one of our bone needles and made a row of marks. Beside an arrowhead she made rows and rows. We would have plenty of spares for hunting and fighting off wild dogs. She even laid down a deer and a rabbit snare and made marks beside them.
“They won’t show themselves so long as we’re here.” She pulled herself up on her staff. I put my hand under her elbow. “I thought you weren’t talking to me!” she cackled, and I didn’t know where to look. I turned and yelled at Nip to come away from a boiling mud pool, and Hagar squawked and flapped like a dusty magpie.
“I’ll show her!” I kicked something but stubbed my toe.
Hagar squawked even louder.
Around the Swapping Ground the scrub was thick with white fur. Steam drifted through branches from pools that heaved and sank. Bordered by vents that whined, mud that slopped, plopped, and collapsed, a track disappeared between stunted trees. I wanted to see the Metal People, but we moved to a hillside and put up the tent.
Dragon on my glove I walked around the animals. Bar and Mak thumped their thick tails on the ground and sniffed Nip. Below I saw a lake, a grey puddle at the bottom of a bowl of hills. A dead band marked where it had shrunk.
The rains hadn’t come here yet. We would have to keep moving to find enough grass. I wondered what the Metal People did for milk and cheese and supposed that was why they traded metal things, because they had no animals. It was no good asking Hagar about them. She would be asleep. She was old.
I flew Dragon at a rabbit that reached shelter before he could cut it off. He tilted, slid along the edge of the scrub, and crashed on another rabbit that scuttled under a big tree. His beak was already dripping when I got there.
He gulped the liver in his bloody way, tore at a hind leg I skinned. Nip was watching him at his messy feast when a branch snapped, and a girl fell out of the tree.
She landed on her back, so hard all the air was pushed out. She lay grunting, unable to get her breath, the skin around her mouth blue. When I was little, and Mor punched me in the stomach, Rose tucked my knees up into my chest. It helped my breathing start again. I remembered and pushed on the girl’s feet. Her knees bent up into her chest; her gasping eased; her face got its colour back.
“Sit a moment,” I told her. “Get your breath.” She kicked my chest hard with both feet, pulled herself up, and menaced me with a dagger. She backed away, breath rasping. Nip growled. I laid my hand on her neck. The girl slipped
into the scrub, disappeared in its gloom. I hunched to get my own breath, dazzled by what I had seen.
“Come back! I was trying to help. You can hold Dragon.” There was only the stillness of dusk, the rumble of steam.
Hagar snored under her blanket. A morepork hooted. A distant reply. Rowing soundlessly through the dark, plucking mice off the ground, little birds off their branches. I wouldn’t like to be a mouse, or a bird, I thought, crawling beside Hagar. If it wasn’t the moreporks at night, it was Dragon during the day. Then I thought of the girl crouching in the branches like a big morepork, and that made me grin and snort. I was sorry she had gone. A real girl, like Rose! One of the Metal People nobody else had seen.
There was no mist next morning. The place was too dry. The animals had drunk from near-stagnant pools last night, the donkeys pawing the water because it smelled sulphurous like the air. Already the goats were trying to spread through the scrub for better feed. We’d have to move them. I wanted to go to the Swapping Ground at once, but Hagar said, “Take your time, Ish. We don’t want to scare them.”
“This is the best way, them taking our stuff, and swapping theirs. Nobody gets hurt. I’d like to see them, too, but we’ve got to do it their way.”
I said nothing about the girl. Part of me wondered if I had dreamt her, but I could feel my chest sore. “Do they look like us?” I asked though I already knew.
“Your father said they wear skins. That’s why they like our woven stuff, I suppose, for softer clothes.”
“Does it get very cold here?” I didn’t tell her I had seen a girl wearing a tunic like mine.
“Away from the hot pools it probably freezes in winter. It’s better to be a Traveller. Look how dry it is. Their lake’s
a stinking puddle.” Hagar pointed north-west. “The Whykatto’s across those hills. The rains will come and there’ll be grass but up here, it’ll be bitterly cold. I don’t like the steam rumbling, and this shaky ground.”
“They live here.”
“Only because they don’t know any better,” said Hagar. “Travelling’s what we were meant to do.”
“I wouldn’t mind staying in one place.”
“Up at the Hawk Cliffs, snow will be a blanket around the lake. The winds howl from the south where the great mountain lies, the one that eats the sun each winter. Everything leaves or dies.”
“There was enough grass to feed the animals.”
“Under the snow?” Hagar cawed.
I couldn’t answer that. “What’s this lake called?” I asked.
“Rott. There’s walls by it. Come on, we’ll have a look.”
Our goods had vanished from the Swapping Ground. In their place lay the things Hagar had drawn. Metal things, all new! A skinning knife for me, and two long slashers, hooked at the end. I swung one, and it felt well-balanced. Two leather bags filled with metal arrowheads. Spear heads. The shears were marvellously-made blades that closed on each other with a grinding sound. Hagar was looking through a wallet of needles. They had swapped us a new axe, a couple of cooking pots, and a heap of metal snares of fine wire. And there was a string of hooks.
“Thank goodness,” said Hagar. “I forgot to ask for them.”
I pulled a wire noose around my arm. “They’ll kill,” she said. “Look at this!” Two narrow blades pivoted on a pin. Handles made it easy to open and close the things. The blades snicked. “Little shears. Handier than a knife at the loom.”
She raised her empty hands and called, “Thank you!” She looked silly, talking to the scrub. I grinned and joined my voice to hers. “Thank you!” We called it several times,
turning and holding up our open hands. I wondered if there’d be a crack and the girl would tumble out of the scrub, but the branches did not move. A steam vent gurgled as if a rock stuck in its throat. Boiling mud glopped.
Hagar laid down gifts of finely-woven stuff, soft shawls she said might do for somebody old or a baby. She had used goats’ hair because it made warmer cloth. We loaded the swaps and left. There was just the sound of steam, mud, and water boiling. The shaky ground.
“Lucky we had those shawls,” said Hagar. “They gave us more than we asked for.”
“I wonder if they look like us?” I said.
Hagar glanced at me. “I thought they might show themselves, since there are just the two of us. They’ll be wondering if it’s a trick. We can’t tell them they’ll be short of blankets and material this year.” Bar started ahead of the animals, Mak out to one side. Dragon was riding my wrist, Nip at my heel.
The man was tall. He wore a deer skin tunic with a knife on a belt around his waist. He looked so like my father something clicked in my throat. Hagar gasped so she didn’t hear me. He had appeared from nowhere, empty hands raised. Beside him stood the girl. She saw me and hid behind the man.
“Go on,” he said. He was smiling as if amused by something.
“You,” said the girl.
The man laughed. “She wanted to give you this.” He took something from the girl and put it around my neck, a chain with a disc. I turned it up and saw Dragon’s head cut in the metal, wild eyes, cruel beak.
“Give her the scarf from the saddle-bag,” Hagar muttered. She had woven it for herself, a floating thing to keep her throat warm this winter. “Go on!” She nodded and chuckled as I held it towards the girl.
She crept, reaching for the scarf, but her fear was too much and she snatched it. Behind her father again she looked at Hagar who put her hand to her neck. The girl drew the scarf around her own, smiling, glancing down, pleased. She was as pretty as Rose. “Thank you!” she said. She even sounded like Rose.
The man bent his head, and I saw it had no hair on top. I think Hagar was going to tell him we were the only Travellers left, but his skin clothes and the girl’s blended into the scrub colours. They vanished without seeming to move. Even Nip was surprised and growled.
“Thank you!” I held up my empty hands. “Thank you!” There was only the silent wall of scrub. I imagined I saw the girl’s face, her hand waving.
We followed the animals around a tall hill to better grazing. I kept taking the chain off to look at the disc. Dragon ignored his image. There was a picture of the girl on the other side. I exclaimed and handed it to Hagar. I had forgotten I wasn’t ever going to speak to her again.
“They sounded just like us,” I said.
“What did you expect?” She turned over the disc. “They are great workers in metal,” she said, “able to cut a picture in it! Those marks, I wonder what they mean?”
There were marks beneath the two heads, carefully cut like the pictures themselves. I hung the chain around my neck again, wondering how the girl and her father lived in that shaky valley during winter.
“I wonder why she gave it to you?” said Hagar. The goats were trying to get past Mak. I ran whistling to help him turn them back. For the rest of that day I kept myself busy, helping the dogs, avoiding her. And I felt her sharp eyes watching, wondering.
The ranges north-west of Lake Rott had little grass. “We have to come this way to swap,” said Hagar, “but the feed’s
never much good.” The animals got enough, but it meant covering more ground. There were few deer, and wild dogs hung on our tracks. As Dragon killed, he led to where I could get enough rabbits for everyone. We were all pleased to descend from those dry hills into the Whykatto.
“That’s rain to the north,” Hagar said one day. “I was beginning to think it would never come.”
But the rain was light, the meagre feed unlike the rich growth I remembered in the Whykatto. We had to move camp to reach fresh grazing. “If it goes on like this,” said Hagar, “we’ll have to start early.”
To the east a line of steep-faced hills walled the Whykatto. Fires smouldered along their tops all winter. “I’ve not seen that before,” murmured Hagar. “None of the stories talk about it. The Whykatto always has rain in winter.”
Even when we camped at the old site, I had to keep moving the animals. “Aren’t we going to open the cave?” I asked. “I want to see the Animals’ Dance.”
“You won’t see it without the men, Ish.” The rocks and gravel stayed over the cave mouth. The glowing pictures seemed to exist only in my mind. Hagar did not want to talk about them. I wondered if they were a dream I once had.
We began the Journey early. Hagar rode and walked head down, spindle rising and falling. It seemed wrong, starting without going down into the cave. I remembered Rose’s hand, the thunder of the charge, the sudden light, the Stag Man swinging his antlered head. The Animals’ Dance was the command to start, a blessing on the Journey.
The Narrower Ford was so shallow the animals walked easily through all but one channel. I thought of my father and spread them on the other side to get all the grass.
“The heat will be great here this summer,” said Hagar. I felt the chain around my neck, the marks below the two pictures, and wondered if it would get too hot to wear.
We pushed south, the animals seizing what feed they could. I recognised the place where Karly Campy had taken Rose and left me behind, where his bullies had beaten me. It all came back but seemed unimportant, like looking through a curtain of time. More and more I found myself thinking of a smiling man who looked like my father, of a girl who fell out of a tree.