This is my attempt at flash-writing for Inspiration Monday XI: (http://bekindrewrite.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/inspiration-monday-xi/. I’m not quite so into the plot this week but wanted to try something different. I hope this isn’t two stories masquerading as one. Anyway, here goes…..
The bird with one leg hopped along the branch oblivious to the watching eyes. The branch was bare but for the deep red berries glistening in the early morning dew. The bird cocked its head; listening for predators. Hearing nothing it pecked swiftly at the red flesh breaking open the skin with one sharp peck.
The stone flew through the air with amazing accuracy hitting the bird cleanly on the head as it reached for another berry. Seconds later it lay on the damp moss, blood seeping into the ground.
The boy reached down and tenderly scooped up its broken little body in the palm of his hand. He gently stroked its soft lifeless feathers as tears began to roll down his cheeks. By the time the boy’s silent tears had ceased the sun was full and high in the sky.
He stood, awkwardly, his limbs stiff from kneeling on the hard ground and turned back into the depths of the woods still holding the bird in his hand. The slight limp in one leg didn’t hinder his silent movement through the broken branches towards the cabin.
He shoved the heavy door aside and stepped into the dark expanse of empty space beyond. The dust caught in his throat again as he breathed in the smells that used to mean home and safety for someone, not him. He laid the bird on a waiting scrap of cloth and gently wrapped it around the frail body, tightly but expertly, before turning back to the door. He grabbed hold of a spade from the wall and headed back into the sunlit copse.
The boy walked to a small pile of ashes that lay in a blackened heap. Slowly he lowered the bird’s body down stacking it with layers of small twigs and dead bracken. He pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit the edge of the kindling. The flames caught instantly and leapt from one leaf to another rapidly consuming the dusty wood, hungrily moving on to devour the bird. He watched until the flames died leaving nothing but a few glowing embers then turned and headed to the water pump by the cabin wall.
Grabbing the old bar of soap he scrubbed his hands again and again under the ice-cold water. His hands were already chapped and sore but the almost vicious scrubbing scraped them raw until the chaps were barely visible under the bright red glow. Only then did he finally rinse off the last of the soap and turn to wipe his hands on his clothing. It wasn’t that he was fastidiously clean, goodness knows he could never be that anymore – not confined to living this fragile existence, but he could not take the risk of infection. Not from this disease. A disease that took days to take hold but became irreversible as the whole body turned against itself in a bid to fight off the infected cells – total self-destruction. Watching his mother and sisters die slowly and agonisingly had been the most horrific thing he had ever faced; he would rather die himself than have to repeat that experience. There were the others to think of.
The disease had broken out without warning, spreading like wild-fire. In the chaos neighbours and families had turned on each other in the fight to stay alive. And it hadn’t stopped there. Whole towns and districts had begun to fight it out to protect their limited resources and full-scale war had eventually broken out until it was no longer safe to re-enter the town even during daylight hours. The children were never safe and sometimes their innocence just aggravated a broken mind and triggered a greater resentment than already held.
The children who had managed to escape the disease, either by the protection of others or through their natural immunity, had naturally gathered near the playground. No-one had told them where to go – it just felt like the safest place. Somewhere they might find someone else they knew from school or from the streets where they had hung out. He was one of the older ones so the responsibility to keep them together had fallen on his shoulders. Despite their tender combined years they had gathered in a disused warehouse on a dusty dirt-track road on the edge of town and now ran missions to bring in food and a safe supply of water from the nearby river.
He never let them go without ensuring that he was doing all he could too and he could hunt. So every other day he would return the woods that he had once been so afraid of. Now it was a haven of safety providing he kept his eyes open for signs of any creatures carrying the disease. Despite being branded a sissy in his early years he still loved animals and hated each and every kill he had to make, but killing to feed the children depending on him never felt so horrific, so brutal, as killing for no reason other than to destroy.
But it wasn’t just the fresh meat or the plants that they salvaged. One man’s trash is another man’s life source and there were objects left by roadsides in the hurry to escape or left untended in the fields that could be recycled for a whole new purpose. So teams were sent to grab whatever they could quietly drag back to the warehouse without drawing attention from the town at war. Old troughs and crates had been turned into beds or upturned to form tables, fences had been dragged in to make fires and cardboard formed a slight barrier between the thin clothes they now wore and the concrete floor on which most of them slept.
The boy walked to the pile of safe game he had left near the entrance to the cabin. Grabbing the rabbits and the one clean bird he had found by the feet he swung them onto his back. He glanced around one last time at the beauty of the woods around him, hoping upon hope that one day he could relinquish the responsibility he’d had no choice but accept. He turned reluctantly and set his face toward the path, leaving this brief moment of freedom behind him for another day.