fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Twenty One. {fiction}

I was hiking up the west fork of the river, investigating the plants that grew in that area and checking for animal sign, my tattered canvas gathering bag slung over my shoulder, when I smelled smoke.

Not a forest fire smoke, cooking fire smoke.

Someone was cooking venison.

As well-fed as I now was, my mouth instantly watered. And I froze, instinctively pressing myself against a large ponderosa tree for cover. Just the thought of seeing another human being sent lightning bolts of anxiety throughout every cell in my body.

Whether or not such a person might want to do me harm, the prospect of seeing another person, much less speaking to them, felt like a tidal wave roaring towards me from the distance. My loneliness had shielded me, even as it enclosed me from all sides like a cage. And what if it was someone who would wish me harm? Another warlord looking for more workers?

I quickly realized that this would not be the first place someone would go to find more people. After all, it had been only me here for a year and I hadn’t seen anyone else. Still, it could be someone dangerous, whatever their purpose in coming here. A lot of people went kind of crazy after the virus.

What if I needed to speak with the intruder? How did I know my voice still worked? I forced myself to breathe deeply for a few breaths. When my breathing finally slowed to close to a normal rate, I peeked carefully through the branches of the piñon at the trespasser.

Instantly I knew him.

The sharp straight nose, long-limbed grace and the hip-length black braid snaking down his back. Appearing close to my age, it could only be one person.

Victorio Swift, grandson of Grandma Sita’s outfitter lover and my own childhood companion.

The shock of seeing someone I knew, and believed I could trust, was almost as hard to bear as confronting Lem and Jeff again. My mind reeled with questions. How long had he been here? What was he doing here? He looked healthy. How was he surviving? Were there others? Where?

I clasped my hands over my mouth to quiet the sound of my gasping breaths as I sank slowly to the ground, back pressed against the tree which shielded me from Victorio’s view. I clenched my eyes shut, as if seeing what I saw again would give me away. Tears streamed down my face and over clamped hands.

I braved a glance up only to see a fully-grown version of my childhood horse-riding friend looking down at me.

His eyes glistened with moisture, which surprised me a little, but he didn’t seem at all amazed to see me, which surprised me a lot.

Still frozen in place yet shaking like a tree in a storm, now weeping and wide-eyed, I watched Victorio crouch down before me and gaze at me for a long moment. He reached out one hand, palm up. I held out one hand, now wet with tears, and took his. Victorio slowly stood and guided me up as well.

Standing a full head taller than me, he pulled me into his chest, wrapping his arms firmly and gently around me, palms clasping my shoulder blades, holding me for a very long time while I cried into the plaid flannel shirt that covered his chest until it was thoroughly damp.

When my sobs had subsided to hiccupping gasps and my shaking had eased to lighter tremors, he said quietly into my ear, “You’re okay now. You’re safe. You’re with friends.”

“Friends?” I squeaked, rubbing my nose on my sleeve and looking around.

Victorio led me as if guiding a spooked horse until we reached the fire where his venison cooked in an old cast iron frying pan set on a metal grate. He eased me down on a tree stump, then turned the meat in the pan. I sat staring into the low flames, feeling drained.

He pulled out an enameled metal plate from a saddle bag on his horse, deftly cut the piece of meat in two, placed them both on the plate and crouched next to me, offering me one of the pieces.

We chewed our venison in silence and I felt more grounded in reality with each perfectly normal, and yet extraordinary, bite. By the time I finished my piece of meat, my body had stopped quivering and I felt like I could refrain from crying, at least for the time being. I licked the grease from my fingers.

Victorio rinsed the plate and pan with some hot water in a pail he had above the fire, then stacked them on a flat rock. He turned towards me with his large, serious, hazel eyes, casting his gaze directly into my face for several long moments, as if gauging how much more I could handle.

He must have decided I could handle more because he asked, “Do you want to see the others?”

I didn’t know how I felt, so didn’t answer.

“I could go with you to your place if you want until you’re ready to see them.”

How did he know I had a place? Why did he assume I had been here for a while, instead of just now arriving? He saw the questions, and then the answers I deduced, dawn on my face in quick succession, and his eyes opened wide in helpless apology. I started to shiver uncontrollably again.

He quickly strode over, leaning down to where I sat, wrapping his arms around me, pulling me against him once more.

I didn’t cry this time, just shook with the magnitude of the betrayal this man had already wrought against me. I could have died. I very nearly did die, and he knew it. He knew it at the time and he hadn’t come to help me.

I wanted to run, to run as far and fast as I could. I wished I could lift myself off the ground and fly from this impossibly disappointing place forever. But my legs felt so wobbly, it was all I could do to stay upright on my stump. I had no strength to fight him, just a blossoming, cold, utterly impotent, rage.

He spoke urgently, quickly, pleading, into my hair, as if the faster he spoke the less I would hate him.

“I wanted to come, to get you, but we had all agreed that we couldn’t take in anyone who couldn’t survive on their own. I even sneaked down to your cabin one time, but you weren’t there and the mice and rats had gotten into your food. I thought maybe you had left for good. I got into a lot of trouble for risking being seen by you. They told me if I did that again, they would banish me.

We can’t risk anyone from the outside knowing about us. And we already have kids and old people to care for. We’d risk the whole group if we took in someone who wasn’t strong enough…”

I felt his arms tighten around me, holding me up, and felt his desperation for me to understand.

“I almost died. My burro was killed right outside my door. I nearly starved and froze!”

“I know. I… I mean, I don’t know it all, but I knew it had to be horrible,” He paused, then swallowed hard, forcing the words from his mouth, “I knew you could die.”

His grip loosened on me and I stepped back, looking him in the eyes.

My voice rose to a full-lunged yell, “I could have died because you let me die!”

“I know. I’m sorry,” his voice flattened in resignation as he looked down at the ground, arms now hanging at his sides.

We stood in silence facing each other, me glaring, his eyes brimming with sadness, just like when the girl died in the movie we watched together when we were kids. My mind reeled a thousand miles an hour in every direction.

I knew him. I needed him. Or I needed somebody. I had finally found someone I knew, someone I had been friends with, and he had already broken my trust. Victorio, one of the people I had dreamed about seeing again as I journeyed here, had been willing to let me die alone.

“I was on my way to check on you, to see if you had, well… made it,” he said limply, looking away.

“What were you going to do, come collect any of my bones the coyotes had left? Rifle through my belongings to see if there was anything you could use?”

His face froze as if I had slapped him, and I felt a small thrill of satisfaction.

I walked away from him, pacing in big circles around his little camp. Fear and loneliness and hatred and grief roiled within me like flowing lava, scouring and searing my innards. There were others with him. Others who had thought about how to survive long-term. But they had been willing to let me die. I felt like a ponderosa tree being tossed every direction by a violent storm.

“I don’t want to leave my home,” I said.

“You don’t have to. We don’t have to go there, to the others, now. You don’t have to go there ever if you don’t want. I mean, please just come tell them all you won’t tell anyone else we’re here.”

“I will tell them that. But I… I can’t go today.”

Suddenly, after a year completely alone, I felt an inexplicable terror at the thought of meeting others and of going back home by myself. Like when I found the cave and I didn’t want to leave that first night because I was afraid it would cease to exist. As much as I hated him right now, I really needed Victorio to continue to exist.

My voice felt heavy in my chest. “You can come with me. If you want.” I turned and started home.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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