A bright red fish swims close to the surface of the lazy river. Its lithe body moves as elegantly as a dancer’s. I used to feel guilty killing and eating such beautiful creatures, but as my grip tightens on the spear I am holding, I can’t wait to feast on its tender flesh. In one fluid motion, the fish darts at the lure I cast out moments ago. It latches onto the hook and writhes in a vain attempt to escape. I step into the water and drive the blade of my weapon through the flailing creature. Lifting it out of the water, the fish’s bright scales glisten in the sun. I put it in the bucket with the other three I caught before it. As my stomach growls like a caged beast, I walk home with my fresh catch. It’s about half past noon; most people are cooking simple meals outside their homes or washing dishes in pails.
A familiar, musical voice breaks through the monotonous sounds. The story teller is standing by the community garden where some teenagers are picking ripened tomatoes and cucumbers.
“When you walk into the woods at night and hear the howling of wolves, you must climb up the closest tree you can find,” she says.
The three youths stare at her in admiration.
“Were you a wanderer for long?” asks the girl in the group as she takes a bite out of a fresh red tomato.
Almaz nods. “I travelled for three years until I reached this camp.”
“It’s amazing you survived so long on your own,” pipes in one of the boys.
“When is this woman not boasting about how brave she is?” I huff under my breath.
One would think she led an army to victory by the way she brags about herself. I think she’s lying about travelling alone. There’s no way a woman like her could survive out there in the elements with violent criminals and wild animals seeking to taste her flesh. She wants to be admired and worshipped, so she’ll say what she thinks people will respond to.
As the sun beats down on my sweat-covered skin, I prepare the fish to be cooked over the fire. Though my hut is the furthest house away from the central part of the camp, the story teller’s voice drifts over to me. I shake my head and glance at the garden. More people have gathered around Almaz as she tells another story.
“You always have to be heard,” I say with disdain.
Once the meat is ready to eat, I walk over to a tree and sit beneath it to enjoy my meal in the shade. My mind quiets down as I fill my stomach with nourishment. Leaning against the trunk of the tree, my green surroundings vanish. The face of my friend appears out of nowhere. His features are distorted by the agony from his battle wounds. My stomach churns as the cruel, vivid memory floats in front of me. I reach for him; he screams. He won’t stop yelling just like before. There is nothing I can do to save him from his pain. I am helpless as he dies in front of me covered with his own blood. I scream along with him until his eyes close and a final anguished breath escapes through his open mouth. I stare at him unable to move as shock and grief sink into my bones. I can’t move. All I can do is stare.
My legs jerk me awake and I sit up in shock. I fell asleep without realizing and was quickly dragged into a terrible memory disguised as a dream. I am still sitting beneath the tall tree. It isn’t like me to sleep in the middle of the day. I stand up and look beyond the camp at the fields. It’s time to work again. I’ll be out weeding and watering the growing crops until night fall. It’s going to be another long, hot day, but I like the work, because no one bothers me out there. Even Almaz’s mystical voice can’t travel that far.
At dusk, most of the commune is sitting around the fire. I wonder why they always need to be with one another. What is it about being alone that scares them so much? Almaz does not tell a story tonight. She spends a lot of time in her hut writing story ideas down on parchment and hell knows what else. I swear she makes potions and chants spells in there, too. Many of the camp’s evenings are filled with the singing of hopeful songs and the sharing of positive thoughts. It all sounds like noise to me. So many men died for the peace these people now take for granted. I know it’s wrong to hate them, but I can’t stop myself from doing it. Rather than join them, I walk to my hut. I sit on my bed and decide to carve out another animal. I’m not sure what it will be yet as I work on a new piece of shapeless wood.
In the morning, I wake up to a soft, friendly voice in my ear.
“Barak, I love you,” he says, clear as day.
It sounds exactly like my best friend. I tense, knowing it isn’t real, but wishing it was. There’s so many things I wanted to say to him before the war tore us apart. My final memory of him is the screaming. When I think of him, that’s all I can see and hear. Every amazing thing we did together pales in comparison to the picture that the battle has seared into my mind. I can’t seem to travel past it no matter how hard I try.
“I know you love me,” I whisper, choking back a sob. “I love you, too. Wherever you are now, I hope you know.”
Three years have passed since he died along with my other friends on that battle field, but I still miss him like it was yesterday. He was my best friend, comrade, and partner in battle. We always had one another’s backs. Now I have no one. I sit there in the empty silence, amazed at how clear his voice sounded. Spirits do not exist. I believe we are living or we’re dead. There’s no in between. Life is better when we accept that fact. We’re less likely to take it for granted when we know there’s no afterlife waiting for us.
I rise and pour myself a cup of water. Early mornings are better than late nights. There’s always a night owl or two wandering about camp no matter how late you stay up, but no one rises this early. It is my time to be truly alone. Making my way out to the fields to start the previous day’s work all over again, I bask in the dark silence. As I get to work, a question forms in my mind. It’s something I’ve been meaning to ask myself for a while, but I haven’t wanted to give it much thought. The sun’s first rays spread high above the flat terrain; I stop to watch it. The sky turns to fire and I marvel at the spectacular display of colours.
At noon, I walk to the creek as usual to catch my lunch. As I make my way down to the ravine, a gentle voice calls my name. My feet freeze in their tracks.
It is her.
“Barak,” she calls again.
Her footsteps are determined, but light. Every muscle in my body tenses as I turn to face the person I hate most in the world.
Almaz smiles wide when our eyes meet.
“Ah, it’s Almaz the story teller,” I say without emotion.
I don’t see the point in pretending to like her.
“We’ve noticed you distancing yourself from us more than usual. I know you’ve always liked your own company. I do, too. It’s how I do most of my creating, but you never come out to the campfires anymore.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “I don’t see the point in socializing every night. I have other things I like to do in the evenings.”
“Even so, you barely speak to anyone at any time of the day. We are worried about you.”
Now they worry about me. They didn’t care about me for three years leading up to this day. I inhale deeply to stop myself from spewing forth the words that I wish I could yell in her face. Now is not the time or the place to express my true feelings. Instead, I force a smile to mimic hers. She studies me with an unreadable expression.
“You are always welcome to talk to me if you need someone to listen,” she says softly.
“I don’t see you being much of a listener,” I remark.
Her eyes widen as an easy smile softens her expression. Life is a joke to her. Any fool can see that.
“I do my best to listen when someone tells me something about themselves. It’s important to me to hear them without interjecting my own thoughts. I hope you know that.”
I shrug. Her words are as good as gibberish to me. She likes playing the mentor or the saviour so that she’ll look good to the crowd. That’s what this is really about.
“I need to go catch my lunch,” I say, shuffling my feet impatiently.
She nods and turns away from me. I suppress a groan of annoyance and continue on my walk to the water. She’d better not make a habit out of approaching me. I don’t think I could fake being nice to her if there’s a next time.
The question nagging at me earlier this morning stirs in my head like a whistling whirlwind. I stop in my tracks as I let it reveal itself to me in a soft, but chilling whisper.
“How long will I be able to stand living here?” I ask no one in particular.