I knew something bad was about to happen the moment Rob walked out on the porch. It radiated from him in great big waves, this sense of badness, of wrongness. I bit back the panic that rose to my throat like bad food and shook the beer bottle that stood on the rickety table. I didn’t hear sloshing and made a face. I was taking my time, trying to get distracted by anything that presented itself. I knew what Rob would tell me the second I saw him. I hoped I was wrong but I doubted it.
“Hi, Aunt May. I’ve got something to tell you.”
My hope died a sudden death.
“Okay, go on” I finally said, reaching out for what remained of my cigarette, perched precariously on the edge of the ashtray, the column of ashes longer than the butt. I squashed it against the metal bottom of the ashtray careful not to look at my nephew.
“I’ve signed up for the hunting party,” he said. His voice was confident, all tentativeness was gone. Rob had made the biggest decision in his life.
Keeping my eyes on the table I pulled a fresh cigarette from the pack that lay by the bottle. My hand was shaky and the table shook too. “Aunt May?” he said, lowering his head, his eyes searching, curious. I looked up, holding the unlit cigarette tightly, ignoring the tremble of my hand. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” I snapped and groped for the lighter, which was a bit too far for me to reach without having to stretch my body. Stretching hurt. Rob got it for me and offered me its flame. I took a pull on the cigarette and felt the panic subside a little. A little was not enough but it would have to do.
“I suppose this decision is final, then?” I said, looking at him through narrowed eyes and a veil of smoke. His features were blurry, which suited me just fine. It dulled the pain from his betrayal.
He nodded. At least now he had the decency to look the tiniest little bit uncomfortable. Embarrassed, even. So there was still something from my sister left in him. She was a gentle soul, my Laura. Way too kind and caring for her own good. She was one of the first to die after we moved here. That was more than 20 years ago I realized with a start. I remembered the day Rob was born. It was a lovely sunny day, as if we had ordered it. And now he was leaving for good. I would never see him again. I shook my head to settle the memories back into their graves.
“So, when do you leave?” I said, tapping the cigarette over the ashtray. The ashes fell in a tiny mound. It looked like a burial mound, like Laura’s burial mound out in the forest by my house. It was my house now but before it was where Laura and Nick, and Rob had lived. That was before Nick ran away, before he set up the first hunting party. Laura didn’t live long after that. She let herself go, she, who had always been so conscientious about keeping her impact on nature to the minimum, even if this impact was a positive one. She planted our first garden back then. She dug it and she planted the seeds we had brought with us. We still used the patch.
“Tomorrow morning,” Rob said. He hesitated for a moment though I could clearly see he was itching to tell me something more.
Rob lifted those bright blue eyes, Laura’s eyes, to me and tried to smile but it came out wrong and twisted.
“I want you to know why I’m doing it.”
I knew why he was doing it. He was doing it because he couldn’t take this life anymore. It wasn’t as fun as life out there in the wild. It wasn’t carefree though I could tell him that life out there wasn’t very carefree either. But he could find that out for himself, I decided. Like father like son. Weak.
“Go on,” I said. I tied to keep the distaste out of my voice but some slipped through the cracks.
“It’s for Bianca,” he said. “She is not doing so well and I, well, I like her. Very much.” His ears turned pink around the edges. I had to fight the relief that rushed through my body and the urge to laugh at his childish embarrassment at having to admit he’s in love with a girl. The urge died as soon as I remembered that I hadn’t seen Bianca, my friend Martina’s daughter, for a while.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked. I hoped it would be some disease, something infectious, something airborne that we couldn’t have control over.
“She’s malnourished,” Rob said, head hung, hands clasped between his knees.
“No!” I couldn’t help it. This was the only thing I did not want to hear and here it was, out of his mouth like the most casual of comments. “That can’t be.”
Rob shook his head.
“Doctor Strand said so. She suggested we go out in the wild. Bianca’s Mom agreed. She’s coming, too.”
The world was suddenly falling apart around me and I had nowhere to go. Martina could have told me about their plans but she hadn’t. To be fair, I wouldn’t tell me if I were her. I was one of the founders of this place and she was a regular citizen with a sick daughter. I had no children of my own but I could understand her. I had watched Laura, after all. I knew she would do anything for Rob. Except stay alive, that is. That she didn’t do even for him.
“Okay,” I said after a while. “Okay. Maybe we should all go, then. The crop hasn’t been all that good this year. And last,” I had to admit. And for a few years before that. I chose not to face the problem and so did the other founders. We made do with what we had and hoped things will get better by themselves. How stupid.
“No!” Rob said, shocked. “You can’t do that!”
I shrugged. I felt old and very tired. And Rob was going away for good and I’d never see him again.
“Might as well. I suppose Bianca is not the only one malnourished but everyone’s afraid to tell me.”
Rob’s face told me I was right.
“And Steven? Lee? Do they know?”
Rob shook his head and unclasped his hands. He stood up, went into the house and brought me another beer.
“Thank you. Well?” I pressed. The only time Rob did chores without me having to remind him was when there was something else he had to do and he didn’t want to do it, like telling me who else of the founders knew about the malnutrition problem.
“Steven knows,” the boy said. “He knows but he’s not going to do anything about it.”
I nodded. That sounded like my old friend and colleague. He had a hard time admitting to realities that didn’t fit in with his world view. But didn’t we all?
“Lee is certain the soil will improve if we just leave it alone for a while,” Rob went on and I snorted. Lee and her ideals. Rob tried to smile, tentatively at first but sincerely when he saw I hadn’t snorted because I was angry but because we both knew Lee all too well. She had been fine at first but by now she was almost completely detached from reality and she didn’t really have any say in matters concerning the community. Yet we pretended she did for some reason I couldn’t remember at this moment. Perhaps to save face. From whom, I cannot say.
“We could bring you some fertilizer,” Rob suggested. So he was feeling bolder now that I hadn’t kicked him out or shouted at him.
“No, thank you,” I said flatly. “The reason we came here was because the wild was not good for us. The same goes for its fertilizers.”
Rob stared at me for a few seconds and I felt uncomfortable. He stared with knowing eyes that I felt piercing me to the soul. I didn’t like that.
“What is it?” I asked when I couldn’t take this stare anymore.
The boy—well, he’s close to 30 but I’m 72, so he’s a boy for me—leaned forward and I drew back as if he was going to strike me.
“People are dying, aunt May,” he said quietly. “People are dying, they are getting sick, and they are not happy. You know it and I know you know it. So do the others but they’re too afraid to speak up or do anything about it. They’re too afraid to disappoint you.” A burst of laughter erupted from his throat and I started. It sounded like a bark, a sarcastic bark. “Think about that when I’m gone,” he said and stood to leave.
“And you think about all the gadgets!” I spat at his back. “All the television, all the cable networks and whatevers, all the smartphones! Oh, and the antibiotics they put in the meat, how about that? I bet you will be sick by the end of the month. But we won’t take you back, Rob! We won’t take you back…” Something choked the words in my mouth. Rob was walking away. He didn’t look back.
“Rob!” I gasped. I couldn’t breathe very well and my face was wet for some reason. I found it soon enough. I was crying and hadn’t even realized it. I was crying because Rob was right and I knew he was right—had always known it. But I hadn’t done anything about it and his mother had died. He probably blamed me for it but Laura was a founder, just like me. She would have refused any treatment she considered going counter to nature. Hell, she had refused treatments while we still lived back in the wild. She was anemic and she wasn’t doing anything about it. She could live with it, she said. She could live with anything as long it was a clean life.
It was Laura who I came out here for. She could be happy here, on the farm that our Dad’s Dad had worked. There were woods, there was a stream, and there was land to grow crops on. All we had to do was build a wall around it. We wanted no contact with the so-called civilization. For us, that was the wild and civilization was in here, inside our walls. We didn’t advertize but people came. Few stayed long—back to nature sounded alluring but they cracked under the pressure of actually doing it, of actually living without all the comforts of the modern world.
Of course we got the idea from The Village. Laura and I had watched it a long time ago and we liked the general idea though not the implementation. We didn’t hide the truth from the kids that were born on the farm. They knew about so-called civilization. And they were free to return to it. We took nobody back, though. There had to be rules and this was rule number one. We had all agreed on it when we set things up and started building homes—well, shacks really but nice ones. Laura, Nick and I got the house. It was our farm, after all. I was fresh out of a tough divorce and I stayed single after that. It was much easier.
I came up with the hunting party when Nick left. I acted on impulse to take the sting out of what Nick had done, which was pack and leave one early morning while we were all working in the garden or the fields. Besides, I worried what he did could encourage others to follow. So I wrapped his betrayal in a euphemism, which is what euphemisms were made for—to wrap around unpleasant stuff, to disguise it, to make it easier for people to live with that stuff. The phrase stuck because there were no animals on the farm, and no meat was consumed. Hunting party sounded ominous, I guess, evil perhaps, so people liked it. Going on a hunting party became the lowest possible level one of us could sink to.
My old and trusted wicker chair groaned underneath me as I stood and went into the house. The air was getting chilly and my bones hurt. The house was dark and quiet, so quiet I shivered. Not that there had ever been a lot of noise here but you can feel the difference between a house that people live in and an abandoned one even when it’s empty. My house now felt like an abandoned one.
We had a good life for most of the years we spent here. We grew our own food, we cooked it, we even brewed our own beer (and I had my tobacco patch). We were no extremists. We wanted to live cleaner lives away from the gadgets and the TVs, and the internet, and the implants, and the sensors, and all of it. We got what we wanted but we had to pay for it. Bianca was among those bearing the cost and that’s why my only nephew, my only living relative, was now leaving.
I took my lantern from the table in the hallway, lit it and walked up the stairs to my bedroom, tripping on the second to last step as usual. This time I almost fell. That would have been hilarious, falling down and breaking a bone or two just when there’s no one to take care of me. I hadn’t asked Rob where he was going to spend the night. With Bianca, probably. I was sure he’d packed his things. The boy was very organized.
It was cold between the sheets when I finally slipped into bed. I almost constantly felt cold these days. Excessive weight was not a problem in our community. Insufficient weight was. I was no different, more bones and skin than flesh now but you had to take what you want and pay for it. I didn’t mind paying. I didn’t mind others paying, too. They had made a choice to come here. Nobody forced anybody and we didn’t advertise. But perhaps it was better for Rob and Bianca to go away. I didn’t want to see my nephew waste away like his mother if anything happened to Bianca.
The soil was bad, that was it. Crop rotation, natural fertilizers—where there are a lot of people living in one place there is more than enough natural fertilizer, let me tell you—but nothing worked. The plants grew but they weren’t as nutritious as before. We had no idea what was causing this. It could be natural or it could be yet another great fruit of so-called civilization. We endured.
Those that could not endure had nothing else to do except go on a hunting party, sink as low as they can in the eyes of the rest of us. Many did, despite the halo of darkness and shame surrounding these two words. From about forty people 15 years ago, we were now down to about a dozen. I held no grudge against anyone. Everyone was free to make their own choices. Mine was to stay here until the end. Perhaps now that Rob was gone, the end would come soon. I did feel very tired these days and I didn’t mind a little rest.
A week went by and I was still alive to my disappointment. I could sense part of me had decided to die after Rob left but the rest of me still clung on, so that part was a disgruntled minority. Everyone was very delicate about it. Not in an obvious way, pointedly avoiding the topic but subtly, asking me how I was doing when they came to visit and bring me food, and suggesting Rob was okay on the other side of the wall.
I agreed. He was going to find his way, I was sure. He was good with his hands and unless every sort of manual labor was already taken over by robots he would sure find a job and be able to take care of Bianca. Plus, Bianca had family in the wild. Everything would work out just fine I had no doubt about it. Which made me feel all the more tired.
I had no one to take care of now and nobody to take care of me, not that I needed it. I wasn’t that old yet. I didn’t eat a lot these days but old people don’t eat much as a rule, I’ve noticed. I didn’t sleep a lot, either, but that was normal, too, I gathered from my conversations with one of the other founders, Steven. He was five years older than me and we used to have a thing many years ago but we never made it permanent and that was fine. He told me he barely slept four hours a night. He caught up with naps during the day, he said, so that was all right. Me, I think that when you no longer need a lot of food and a lot of sleep, the next to go is the need to breathe. That was all right, too.
Last night a noise woke me. Some sort of rustling that was gone before I opened my eyes. My first thought was that Rob was back. A ridiculous thought. Still, I got out of bed and went downstairs. I opened the door and there it was, on the porch: a cardboard bucket. The smell hit me in the nose straight away with a force I didn’t expect. Before I could form a coherent thought, I’d picked up the bucket and had gone back inside, clutching it tightly to my chest.
More than thirty years it had been since the last time I’d tasted any kind of chicken. This had to be Rob. Rob knew the ins and outs of the farm. Not that there were many of them but he was a curious boy and I was sure he had studied the ways he could come back in unnoticed. Just in case. Or maybe he already planned to leave.
I went into the now rarely used kitchen and sat at the small, round table. A thick layer of dust covered it but I didn’t care. I sat the bucket with the chicken down and stared at it for a while, taking in the smell. I suddenly felt very hungry, hungrier than I’ve felt since I was a child, bursting with energy. Children are always hungry because they grow so fast. Now I felt like a child.
I reached into the bucket and took out a drumstick. Dark golden, glistening with the frying fat, crispy, with such a delicious smell. I bit into the crust and the meat, closing my eyes when the taste flowed into my mouth. I never knew before why in movies and commercials people close their eyes when they smell or taste something nice. Now I knew. The sensation was overwhelming. You had to shut down one sense to be able to relish what another was giving you.
The drumstick was gone in seconds. I reached into the bucket again—without looking, I wanted to be surprised—and pulled out a wing this time. Memories came flooding in. How I loved to pick at chicken bones when I was young and not yet appalled by the chicken industry that got me off meat forever. Or so I thought. How the crispy crust crunched between my teeth and how the fat made my mouth feel warm and cozy, like a home inside me, a home just for me.
The first cramp came two drumsticks and another wing later. I knew it was coming, I wasn’t stupid. Even so I doubled over when it hit like a sharp metal rod that somebody had decided to stab me with in the guts. I caught the bucket as I groped for the table’s edge and it fell. More drumsticks and wings spilled out but I couldn’t have them. Another cramp forced a moan out of my mouth. I felt sorry for my gut, for about a second. Then that metal rod with the sharp end stabbed me again.
I lost my balance and tumbled to the floor, landing on my knees. I heard something crack around my midsection and a whole new wave of pain washed over me. The epicenter was my left hip. I’d broken my hip bone. Another cramp made me scream. I wanted to curl up like a baby as I used to when I was a child and my tummy hurt. But all I could do was lower myself on the floor as carefully as I could and lay there, in the dark, with a belly full of chicken, an angry, tortured gut, and a broken hip bone.
I laughed out. It sounded more like a bark, more like a groan but I laughed nevertheless. And again. And again, until I had no more energy to laugh. I had taken what I wanted and I had paid for it fair and square. No regrets. I was going back to the night of first ages and I couldn’t wait to get there.