Shortlisted for Field of Words Flash Fiction Competition 2016
After drawing water and placing the billy over the flames, mother sits by my side. She stares into the fire as the stew cooks.
‘Have to chop some more wood tomorrow.’
‘Going to be getting cold soon.’
We smile at each other.
It wasn’t always like this. We used to live in the city and I went to school with the other kids. We had to move out here because of the city folk. If we ever go back there, mother says the guards will meet us at the gate and drag her away, and maybe me too. She is a marked woman, we know, and because I am her child I am marked too.
One day some travelers appear. A man comes over the hill with a worn rucksack over his shoulder and a little girl clutching his hand.
‘Have any work to do for a feed?’ the man asks and for all her talk about not trusting anyone, mother clucks at their cold hands and settles them in front of the fire.
‘Don’t you go to school?’ the man asks me that night, his daughter huddled beside him at our rickety table. He talks through a mouthful of stew and when I confess how long I have been there he stares.
‘Don’t you wonder what is beyond these hills?’
I shake my head and he laughs. ‘You must be the most uncurious person in history!’
This rankles but he doesn’t notice because he is pulling a timber wolf out of his rucksack. He places the puppet over his hand and moves his fingers to make it talk.
The child wrinkles her nose at the wolf. ‘You’re not real,’ she says, and takes its hairy muzzle in her fingers. She turns its head around to face her father. ‘Look,’ she tells it. ‘Daddy’s hand is in you!’
The travelers retire early and leave at sunrise. The little girl waves goodbye, turning to look back as she walks. Mother clears away their remains and soon there is no sign they were ever here. For a long time I stay with her, boiling the billies and chopping wood, but one day I put on my walking shoes and fetch a water bottle.
Some hours after I set off, the city wall comes into view. Images fill my mind of the guards dragging me away, but I force myself to keep walking and as I get closer I see the people are smiling at me.
‘Morning, lass,’ says a woman steering a heavy load. ‘Welcome to the city.’
Mother says it was a trick. That I would never have got back out if I had gone through the gate. She chops vegetables and refuses to hear of moving to the city. The cold is setting in now. We keep the fire banked up and burning all night. No travelers come past here now. We are miles away from any other people. It’s because of the city folk.