Friday, 28 March 2014
Unworthy - Chapter One
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My heart thuds in my chest. Familiar as this vigil is, the adrenaline which floods my system is always the first sign that something is near. My senses on high alert, I wait, hardly breathing, absolutely still. There it is, the musky scent of dog. Slowly, very slowly, I lift the blowpipe towards my lips. There’s never a second chance.
The faint crunch of leaves focusses my attention. The pipe is half-way to my lips when the beast comes into view, standing at the edge of the moonlit clearing. At the limits of my peripheral vision, I see it halt, sniffing the frigid air. For a moment I doubt the effectiveness of my camouflage. My hands pause, the blowpipe suspended. Has it smelled me? The uncertainty is fleeting. I’m reassured by the countless nights spent in this same spot; watching, waiting. Undetected.
The baby’s thin wail pierces the night-time stillness again and the dog’s attention is immediately on the bundle in the clearing, ears pricked forward and alert. It stalks into the moonlight.
The creature that reveals itself has a low-slung head and flat muzzle. Its shoulders form an ugly hump as it noses its way towards my tiny newborn charge. The sickly smell of death reaches me across the stillness.
I’ve seen this one before. A loner which hunts on its own. Mangy coat and visible ribs, it hangs around the outskirts of the hub, waiting for a chance to feed.
I aim the blowpipe carefully. The ache in my legs forgotten hours ago, I will my heart to quieten, inhaling deeply and noiselessly. As the dog pauses on the edge of the circle of stones, I send the dart away in one powerful puff.
It yelps at the sting on its rump and turns, snarling, lips pulled back to reveal a row of jagged teeth. Yellowed eyes search the shadows, nostrils flaring for a scented clue. Neither eyes nor nose register my presence. The beast goes rigid, and falls onto the ground, a thin whine escaping its constricting throat.
I gently lower the blowpipe to my lap, stand slowly and stretch, allowing blood to flow back into my legs. The sky will begin to lighten in another half hour, and I have a lot to do before then. I tuck the pipe into my belt and snap the clasp on the pouch next to it.
I look all around me, sensing the forest with my whole body before leaving the shadow of the old oak which has provided my support through the night. Finally satisfied that I am alone, I step into the clearing and approach the two shapes in the moonlight.
The dog lies on its side, just outside a ring of stones two metres in width. Its tongue hangs out and its eyes don’t blink. It’s not dead, simply paralysed.
Inside the ring of stones is sand. Concentric circles woven hours ago at sunset trace smaller and smaller shapes into the centre, where a bundle rests, rejected by the town which lies less than a kilometre away. I hover for a moment on the edge of the sand, wishing for the hundredth time that I could enter it. I can hear small whimpers coming from the child. Only half an hour to go till dawn. I send a silent message of strength to her, as though she could live just by my willing it. Most don’t make it through the night. This one has done so well. She must be strong; stronger than they thought. Strong enough to survive.
Night after night I have sat out here, watching over the bundles in the centre of the stones. I am unable to enter it for fear of leaving signs of tampering. The rules are very clear. The nano-patch applied at birth is a cocktail of life giving antigens and vaccines, but for many it is not enough. A sickly child is marked for death, and the only way to earn the right to live is to prove strength and resilience with surviving one night in the ring. However, signs of interference would mean immediate death.
Death for a marked child is almost assured. At least it was until two years ago, when I began my secret vigils. Since then, the numbers of survivors have doubled. They are still far too few, but now at least the newborns have a slim chance. No wild animals have entered the circle of stones on any of my watches. No dogs, wild pigs, scavenging birds, cats nor even weasels. If the hubbites have noticed the drop in animal tracks through the sand, and the change in survivors, I haven’t heard of it.
The baby I have guarded tonight is female. Her mother brought her at sunset, accompanied by a group of stony-faced women who made sure that the mother completed the circular pattern and left her child before the sun disappeared. No matter how many times I see it, their coldness always wrings my heart. They have all been in her position. Is this why they can show so little empathy? Are they so callous because they understand her hesitation? Do they wish others to experience the same pain they felt?
I don’t understand it, and I won’t accept it, but I can’t fight it. Hub tradition is strong, and even I can grudgingly admit that it is based on a practical attitude towards survival of the fittest. I once heard a woman tell the marked child’s mother, “She’s going to die sooner or later. Better get it over with before you get attached to her.”
So instead, I have found my own way to help my tiny brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately the woman with the stoic advice was right. Even those which survive the night, and are welcomed back into their homes by weeping mothers, rarely live another year. I have assisted eleven babes to live through the night, and I have lost five of the older ones before reaching the age of two. Many and more have perished, even with my night watch. I can keep away the beasts, but a blowpipe is no defence from the biting cold, and the sicknesses which the nano-patch could not prepare them for.
If she makes it, she will be number twelve.
I exhale and turn from the little bundle. Bending down, I grab the dog by its hind legs and begin to pull it back the way it came. For a straggly scavenger it’s heavy enough, and my body is weak with exhaustion. It takes me nearly ten minutes to drag the creature to a ravine, and tip it down to the creek below. When I look to the east I can see a thin line of pink beginning to appear far away across the blackness. I close my eyes to the sea breeze and allow myself a final hopeful thought for the child in the circle.
As I make my way towards the hub along the clifftop, the horizon is slowly lightening and the ocean turns from black to grey. This morning I feel hopeful, unlike most times I’ve stumbled back along this path for an hour or two in bed. It’s mornings like these that make the many nights spent in the clearing worth it.
I live with my Grandad on the edge of the hub, and slipping back into our home without being seen is something I’ve done many times. When I let myself into the pod, I move as quietly as possible. It’s become something of a personal challenge for me to get past Grandad without him hearing me return.
“Alright?” his soft voice comes from the back room. I sigh, then smile.
“Yes,” I reply, and continue to my room.
I’ve never told Grandad where I go or what I do. I’ve not had to; he simply seems to know. And although we’ve never discussed it, I also know he’s afraid for me. But he’s never tried to stop me.
I strip off quickly and am asleep almost immediately. Morning will come far too soon.