There was once a land that was at war with another land

There was once a land that was at war with another land. The war had been going on for longer than anyone could remember. Every year young men and women were shipped off to fight. Those who came home returned with limbs blown off or scars that disfigured them or injuries that never fully healed despite the surgeons’ skills. In time, because the land needed people to run its factories, till the land, teach the children and do all the jobs a normal country has to do, those wounded soldiers got on with their lives as best they could. Many fell in love, set up homes together and had children themselves. But because of their own injuries, the newborn children looked different and strange to them, and many felt the children could not be theirs if they did not bear the same scars, it became common, then accepted, to change those children’s bodies to match those of their parents’.
The maimed children grew up and were also sent to the war, returning ever more harmed and disfigured and in pain. And so the cycle was perpetuated, on and on, through time.

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Méchant Loup

Méchant Loup

(first published on my main blog http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/)

The wolf-whistle cut across the cool evening air, shrill and insistent but the girl in red did not respond. Instead, her pace picked up as her shiny red shoes clattered along the path.

From a dozen yards away, the man in the wolf costume bristled with indignation as his bid to gain her attention failed. The heels of the shoes were too high for her to walk fast enough to get out of sight quickly enough, and the height of them made her wobble in a way he found most appealing. Glancing at her retreating figure he watched as her long legs in fishnet stockings tried to stride, but the combination of short, tight skirt and those absurd high hells meant she could not take more than short steps. The percussive sound of the heels on the concrete path was music to his ears(the real ones under the furry ones) and he levered himself off the bench and started to saunter after the retreating girl. His long loping gait caught her up in a very short time and he saw that she was indeed a real prize worth pursuing.

She glanced back at him as he caught her up, sweet, heart-shaped little face hidden amid the folds of the crimson hood. He smelled her scent, warm and woody and with a hint of hazelnuts and saw that under the short cloak, she was carrying a wicker basket filled with nuts and fruits. Apples and pears jostled with walnuts and chestnuts and hazelnuts and their mingled fragrance added to the enticing aroma of warm woman.

Going somewhere nice?” he said but she tried to ignore him.

Don’t be like that,” he called as she broke into an awkward run. “I’m only being friendly. What’s the matter with you? Bet you look so lovely when you smile!”

The path dipped into a wooded area, and the light from the park lamps dimmed. The girl was only a few paces ahead, stalled by cramp and doubled over panting.

Leave me alone,” she said, her voice hoarse and quivering with fear.

I’m just being friendly,” he said again.

The girl slid her shoes off, placed them in the basket, and took off like a hare, red cloak flapping. She’d hitched her skirt up so as she ran he could see the tops of her stockings. He licked his lips, appreciatively. The path wound into the spinney at the end of the park, twisting and turning in the town planner’s attempt to make the park seem huge and wild. Her nylon-clad feet made a dull thudding as she ran into the trees before vanishing from sight.

He set off after her, letting out a wild howl of enthusiasm, his trainers scuffling through the fallen leaves. He liked the howl, so he did it again and again, feeling the pulse of blood through his body, exciting and primeval. The joy of the hunt, he thought, in delight.

After about five seconds of running he stopped dead in his tracks as his howl was answered by one that was so much wilder it made his heart skip a beat. It’s a dog, he said, but when it came again, louder and closer, he knew with ancient instinct it was no such thing. Around him, the trees seemed to close in, cutting out the light and sounds of the city beyond the park. The path ahead of him had vanished amid nettles and brambles so dense there was no way through. He pushed back the wolf’s head of fake fur and lolling comedy tongue and tried to see what was going on.

He was surrounded by black forest, huge trees and tight undergrowth, and his breath hung in clouds around him. Frost coated the carpet of fallen leaves and as he marvelled at the sudden drop in temperature, he heard the growl.

Deep shining eyes, tinted with scarlet, were watching him, and the breathing of the creature was mixed with a low, menacing growl. His nerve broke and he started to run, pell-mell, not looking where he was going, his whole being consumed with survival instinct. He didn’t stop running until he floundered into the oozy black mud of the boating lake, drained for the winter, and fell on his face into it.

As the foul-smelling mud seeped into his costume, he listened, hoping that he was hidden from the thing that chased him. When nothing happened he eased himself up from the muck and headed homeward, Hallow e’en party and girl forgotten. As he reached the park entrance, he stopped for a moment, reeking with filth and with fear. A howl rang out, long and mournful, the sound muffled as if by trees, and ended in a peal of what sounded very much like laughter.

The Gardener and His Apples

The gardener and his apples

Behind the high walls of crumbling red brick a garden was tended with immense and loving care by a man who knew every plant and stone and loved them all. The garden was one he had tended much of his life and his father and his father’s father before him. The garden was what you would call a working garden, and a greater part of it was a market garden. Once his father had grown potatoes and carrots and the usual array of vegetables but only a small plot was used for that now, and its produce was for his own table.

The gardener mainly grew the things the supermarket buyers wanted him to grow: soft fruits like blueberries, raspberries, red currants, and unusual and fashionable vegetables. He grew enough of such premium food to make a quiet living on top of his other part time job, and he was content with his life but for one thing.

That one thing was the orchard.

Now the orchard was a beautiful place, half an acre of mature trees that had mainly been planted by his grandfather. The trees were a mixture of fruit trees and the majority of them were apple trees. Not just any old apple trees but the glorious old varieties that you hardly ever see any more. Every spring time a local bee-keeper came with hives and while the apples bloomed fragrantly the leaves were filled with the contented hum of a million bees. A few jars of honey always came his way for this and he always looked forward to it. The problem had become the apples themselves.

People had become accustomed to only certain types of apples being considered to be apples. The varieties he grew not only tasted quite different to normal apples, they looked different too. Some were smaller than usual and had a colour that seemed different to the shiny green or red that the shoppers preferred. Since he never used any pesticides, or anything unnatural, most of the crop had at least a tiny blemish or mark on their skin. The apples refused to grow perfectly round and to a specified size. And their taste was far stronger and richer than most shop-bought apples ever were. So little by little demand for his apples dropped away until the last two years he’d been unable to sell any apples at all. The previous year’s crop had gone to feed pigs.

Now this year, as the September sun ripened his apples, he stood watching his beautiful orchard and wondered if it was time to chainsaw the whole lot and replant with modern varieties that the public might want to buy. The song of the birds soothed him and as he watched both the birds and the busy insects and saw the thousands of faces of flowers looking up from the grass beneath the trees, and smelled the rich fruity smell of the first windfalls fermenting in hidden hollows in the grass, he thought, not this year.

Pondering it over a quiet beer with his old friends at the pub, one of them suggested that rather than let them all just rot or be composted, he ought to fill up crates with them and leave them at his front gate with a sign telling people to help themselves.

People love getting things for nothing,” said his friend. “It’ll encourage all those kids who walk past your place every morning and afternoon to eat some proper fruit.”

What a good idea, he thought, and when he got home, he hauled out a wooden crate and filled it with some of the first apples that had ripened. The smell rising from them made his mouth water, and he wrote out a sign saying Free Apples and put both out by the front gate and went to bed.

The next morning, he watched from an upstairs window as the usual parade of uniformed school children trooped past. He saw heads turn and glance at the sign before rushing onwards. Of course, first thing in the morning perhaps apples aren’t what you want, he thought and got on with his busy day. As evening came he went to refill the crate with more apples and when he got to the front gate he almost dropped his basket. The crate was empty.

Excellent, he thought. The children love my apples.

For the next two or three days he filled the crate up every morning but then he noticed something when he went for his usual Friday night pint at the pub. All along the road were smashed apples. They’d been kicked to pieces, used as footballs, as missiles to throw at the ducks in the duckpond. There was no evidence that anyone had ever set tooth to a single one.

Well, then suggest a donation and put out an honesty box,” suggested his friend. “But leave it a few days to let the kids forget they used to be free.”

The following Monday he began again with a fresh batch of apples, a new sign and a cash box with a slit chained to the gate. The sign read, “Please take an apple, and make a donation if you enjoy it.”

Again he watched from a distance as people passing, not just children, stopped and read the sign and at the end of the day he came back to find some of the apples gone, and only a few littering the road. A core had been placed on the cash-box, but when he opened it, it was empty. The following day, the same outcome, except for a badly spelled note in straggly handwriting pushed into the cash-box, which read, “Your appels tast like shit.” And on the third day, he went to pick up the crate only to discover the apples were all wet; someone had urinated on them.

Discouraged, he took the sign and the cash-box down and threw the remaining apples into the compost.

As the rich September sunshine ripened more and more apples, he decided to have one more shot at it and this time he filled a few bags up with apples, put out the cash-box again and wrote yet another sign. This one read simply, “Apples, 8 for 50p. Put money in box; I am watching YOU!”

At the end of the first day he came to find the crate empty and the cash-box rattling. When he added up the money and the number of bags, it didn’t tally exactly. Undoubtedly someone had taken a bag of apples and not paid for it. But the next day, he filled more bags and set them out and so it went on.

One morning as he was setting the crate of apples out a schoolboy stopped.

I don’t have fifty pee,” said the schoolboy, and the gardener looked at the boy curiously. His uniform was clearly second-hand, probably a hand-me-down from an older brother and his face looked pinched and a little pasty. Poor kid probably needed some decent food in him, thought the gardener.

Tell you what,” said the gardener. “I’ll let you have some for nothing if you do a bit of tidying up for me out here. Come by after school and we’ll see.”

The boy’s face brightened, and then brightened some more when the gardener opened one of the bags and popped an apple in his hand.

You munch on that on your way to school and the rest’ll be here waiting for you later,” he said and the boy bit into the apple and began running to catch up with the rest of the gang of kids.

That afternoon, the gardener waited near the gate, weeding the path, until the school boy came back.

Hey mister, that apple was lush,” came the voice and the gardener got up from his kneeler and came to the gate. “What do you want me to do?”

The gardener had thought about this. He produced a big bucket of water and some cloths and a fresh piece of white card with a packet of coloured pens. Then he brought round a new basket of apples and some clear plastic bags.

You can make my apple stall look a bit nicer,” he said.

So he watched for a while as the boy washed, dried and bagged up apples and he went inside for a cup of tea. When he came back, he found the boy had not only finished bagging the clean apples, he’d made a good start on a new sign. He’d sketched out new words and was busy making each letter a work of art. They were like the letters in an illuminated manuscript, with little drawings worked into them.

Can I finish it at home, please, mister, me mum’s going to go spare if I’m not home soon?” asked the boy and the gardener nodded and handed the boy his promised bag of apples and saw him scurry off down the street with school bag, sign and apples all clutched in his skinny arms. 

The following morning, as he watched from an upstairs window, the gardener saw the children rushing by and he saw a familiar mouse brown head pause at the little stall before rushing on. Curious, he went to see if the boy had brought the finished sign. People were stopping to read as he got to the gate and he waited till the rush of school kids was gone before going to see what the final version of the sign said.

The sign, among the drawings of apples and bees and butterflies, read:

These are not just apples; these are carefully tended, specially washed and utterly delicious apples. Eat one and never crave Golden Delicious again.”

In smaller letters it then read:

8 for 50p but feel free to pay more when you buy some more

and in smaller letters still it said: I bet you will, too!

By the first frosts, the gardener had sold every single apple but for the ones he’d set aside in his shed to save for the winter, for himself and his helpful young assistant.

  

Wild Sheep Dismayed

 

Wild Sheep Dismayed

 

There was so much to learn about life beyond the safe, predictable life behind the hedges and fences and farms that most of the escapees found themselves bewildered and disorientated. Some even chose to go back, shortly after their frenzied escape from the field on finally understanding their fate. The cold and the hunger and the fear were all too much for animals who had been reared to accept the sweet hay and sheep nuts left out for them, and the ministering of the vet when ill.

But a hardy few survived the first months beyond the confines of their former lives and those who did realised that the long term survival of the wild sheep meant sharing both knowledge and experience with newcomers, still with their wool fresh and clean and smelling of sheep-dip. If you had comrades with whom you could stand when the blizzards came, then you would not freeze to death on your hooves, and when the predators came, as they will, you can stand and face them. If you all rush as one, you will put most predators to flight by your sheer force of united strength.

For sheep are far stronger than many imagine them to be, not seeing that beneath the layer of wool and insulating fat, they are powerful beasts and capable of laying a man out with ruptured internal organs. But they are herd animals and they are happiest in a group and as time went on the escapees formed small groups that were not quite flocks. The groups had to be small for obvious reasons, because no one wanted to draw attention to themselves and be caught. Fleeces were deliberately allowed to grow green with algae, as camouflage, and instead of following paths they tried to take new routes each time so no new paths could be worn.

As time went on, new arrivals were accepted into existing groups and taught what they might safely eat, where to drink without being seen and other vital things. Some of the new wild sheep were strange looking, rare breeds and even exotic ones escaped from parks and even zoos. The only requirement to join a group of wild sheep was to declare oneself to be a wild sheep.

Once a year, around the autumn equinox, the sheep would all meet high in the mountains to discover what the year had brought each group. A great gathering of silent sheep would scare the life out of any human watching but these sheep knew how to keep their peace and as they filed into the valley a watcher might have marvelled at their numbers, and the variety of the forms the sheep took. Small ones and large ones, black ones and (greenish) white ones, piebald and grey, they came in every shade and form you could imagine. There were even plenty who everyone knew were really goats but who could scarcely be distinguished from the canny, sure-footed little sheep who grazed the mountain passes. The goats were as welcome as any.

Each group had an elected leader who spoke their year’s news and when most had spoken and the wild sheep were feeling content that their fellows were thriving, a ragged looking fellow, so thin his backbone showed through his fleece spoke up. His little band of sheep were no better than he.

Our news is not so good,” he said.

Why so? Your territory has good grazing far from people. What has troubled you?” asked another spokes-sheep.

The ragged sheep was silent for a while.

You will see that we are fewer in number than we were last year,” he said. “Shortly after our last enclave we were joined by a new sheep, fresh from the farm. He seemed as relieved as any to have escaped. He fitted in with our ways and all seemed well for a while. Then our sheep began to grow listless. To grow thin when we should have grown fat, for as you have said, we live on good land with rich grass.”

So what happened?” a small black sheep asked.

Again the ragged sheep took some time to answer.

I have only now understood what happened,” he said. “But I do not understand all of it. The new sheep….was not like any sheep I had known. He could do things I’d never seen. He could persuade you that the grass over there was better than this luscious patch of clover you had been about to eat, or that if we all went down to the road there was a load of spilled beets and carrots to enjoy. But the road is miles away and when we got there, the beets were all gone. If they had even been there. But the worst was to come. He became close friends with certain sheep; you would never seen them apart, grazing together, and slowly, his friends weakened. Some died, in their sleep; some vanished. Some we know went back to their farms. I did not understand that he could have the power to weaken the others until a dear friend of mine fell under his spell. When she became too weak to move, I found her, lying a long way from any of us. As she lay dying, her spirit broken, I made her tell me what had occurred. She had felt like she had fallen into a dream, and she would willingly give up the best grazing for her friend because he had suffered so when he was at the farm. Though our grazing is good, it is sparsely scattered and we are careful not to allow places to become obviously grazed. She would bring him the choicest of leaves and would even venture down to the farm to steal mangles and beets and carrots when he was flagging. He would talk all the time about going back to the farm, and that life out here was too hard and how he missed the life he’d led back there, and that while we would all eventually be slaughtered, better to die warm and well fed. And she would argue that living wild and free might be hard at times, but surely it was worth it to build a better life that was lived as true sheep should.”

The ragged sheep bowed his head.

I sought to find our newest sheep and found him gone before I could question him and call him to account,” he said. “I do not know where he has gone. I cannot ask why he did what he did to so many good sheep, or whether it was his intention to do so. He may have gone back to his farm, or he may be wandering to find a new flock.”

What did he look like?” asked a spokes-sheep from a little further back.

He looked just like any one of us, an ordinary sheep that has sought to be wild,” said the ragged sheep. “There was nothing to warn you. It’s not as if he was a wolf wearing sheepskin. He was just another sheep.”

So how can any of us know if he (or one like him) is among us?” demanded another sheep, her voice full of fear.

We must be vigilant and we must talk to each other,” said the ragged sheep. “Support each other, share our burdens widely. Not with just one sheep, but openly. What we have learned needs to be shared with all, but so too does what we experience. I have heard tales of vampire sheep that suck the blood of others, but these are just tales to scare the lambs into silence at night. This is far worse because you offer your strength willingly to another, believing that the other will share with you when you need it. And they do not. I would rather a ravening wolf came among us than this.”

Soberly the conclave of sheep ended and the groups dispersed as silently as they had come, each thinking hard thoughts of their own and feeling a chill like winter had come early.

Snip

 

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010