Not Even Light, Chapter 1, Part 2 of 2

As I rummaged through my gear, I started thinking about all the things that could go wrong once I walked off even if I were as well prepared as I could be. Since I was a kiddie, I’d heard all kinds of stories about others who’d left the farm. No one could say for sure what had happened to most of them, but the stories were not encouraging. The Flies took this one or bandits caught and tortured and offed that one. This one had been brutalized and converted by the Meeks, or had been snuffed by a city gang, or had joined another less prosperous farm, or croaked after drinking bad water, or had just plain vanished. Once you left White Cedars, it was understood that you left for good, and the only things that remained on the farm concerning you were fast-fading memories. After a while you were as forgotten as someone who’d been composted and spread on the gardens and fields.

I began to wonder if I had made the right choice, and a sudden and overwhelming sense of numbness and fear washed over me. Did I really know what I’d be up against in the Big Woods? Probably not, so why not just stay on the farm and fill my hours with comfortable routines instead of heading out into the woods to vanish like all the others before me? I felt a dizzy sickness filling up my head and gut, and I had to stretch out on my bunk, my heart pounding away. Everyday sounds of farm life mixed together with a roaring in my ears while the walls of the barracks seemed to press in on me. I grabbed the frame of my bunk and held on tight until my panic passed.

I used to get that way sometimes when changes in my ordinary life loomed up. I didn’t like it a bit, but I could never seem to do much about it other than ride it out. So I did what I always did back then. I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths, and shook myself all over like a dog caught in a cloudburst. Sometimes that helped me throw off fear, and it worked that time, too. Now’s not the time to worry about tomorrow and what might happen, I told myself, and right now I’m doin’ okey-doke and good enough. I’m sure that I’ve gone over every detail, and if I keep worrying, I’ll be shaking myself off all day. And how the hell would that look. I couldn’t let all the others see me acting like a double-dyed kiddie.  After all, I was about to do a manful thing and leave all the kiddie stuff behind for good. A few deep breaths more, and I was ready to get on with the day.

I repacked everything carefully, least likely to be needed in a pinch on the bottom and most likely on top, and cinched down the straps of my bag good and tight. I promised myself I wouldn’t look inside again until I was well deep in the Big Woods. Dammit, trust yourself, I thought, but I knew I’d have another go at packing before next morning.

I stretched out again and waited for my cohort to come back from morning chow to pick up their work gear and head out for the fields or barns to take up whatever chores they had been posted to. It wasn’t long before they barged through the barracks doors, laughing and clowning as always, and damn if I didn’t feel watery in the guts thinking that I’d soon be out in the woods on my own and never again kidding around or weeding the gardens or mucking stalls or hunting with them. But that little dread passed fast. Far better to be running through the woods than weeding onions or stirring compost in the baking sun or dredging irrigation ditches.

So, I stood up straight looking, I hoped, like I was all ready to say my bye-byes and brave the woods. I narrowed my eyes and set my mouth serious-like so I’d look like one of the farm’s senior men, but when they crowded around me, I lost all that. Now, hell no, I didn’t let myself blub, but I couldn’t keep my tough face on either. I’ll spare you all the chatter and questions and jokes, but by the time we’d all reached the end of it with nothing more to say and eyes shifting around or staring at the floor, I got a few last pats on the back and socks in the arm and that was that. They turned their thoughts to work and were gone within a couple of minutes. The barracks had never felt emptier.

The next stop for me was the mess hall. There were only a half-dozen or so still eating when I got there. I nodded greetings and crossed the hall to the same seat I always took at the same table in the same corner of the room. I thought, this is why I’m going out the gate. It’s always the same thing here, day after day, night after night. That’s why I always looked forward to a caravan of traders or showmen pulling up at the gate or a far off rumpus down the road when I was on watch, anything to yank me out of the suffocating sameness for a while. You know how your leg feels when it goes to sleep on you? That prickly numbness? When you try to stand up and walk on that wobbly leg, you kind of feel like you’ve stepped on thistles? Well, that’s sort of the way my head usually felt on the farm. It’s not as though I’d actually have enjoyed seeing a firebomb fly over the palisades because someone could get hurt. But if I knew no one would be right in the way of a bomb, there were times I wouldn’t have minded seeing just that. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but I was one of the few who’d admit to it.

I’d drifted off into dreamworld before one of the mess crew sidled up to ask me what I’d have. I jumped a little when I saw him standing just off my shoulder. I laughed off my nervousness and said, “The usual…berries, nuts, grain, honey, tea.” He said, “Okey-doke” and went off to the galley to fetch my grub. I thought, when I’m in the Big Woods I’d better be a hell of lot more alert than that. Not that he would have, but he could have cut my throat before I had a chance to get my knife out of its sheath. While I was mulling that over, he came back with my tray. “Hear you’re leaving us tomorrow,” he said.

“You heard right.”

“Your choice?”

“Yep.” Though I was now old enough to get the boot, I wasn’t so stupid to have done any of the kinds of things that would have resulted in that.

“All fit up and ready, are ya?”

If he hadn’t been one of the farm’s simples, maybe I’d have snapped that it wasn’t much of his business. But that would have been cruel. “Believe so. Won’t really know for sure till I get on the trails.”

“Yeah,” he said, scratching his head. “Guess there ain’t nobody really knows before they walk out.”

“That’s about right. Guess I’ll find out for myself, yeah?”

“Well, g’luck,” he said and gave me a luck sign and a smile.

“Appreciate that. Luck t’ya, too, whatever comes.”

He nodded and looked like he’d thought of one more question to ask, but he kept his mouth shut. I knew he wanted to ask why I was leaving, but he just turned and walked back to the galley. I was glad he hadn’t asked because I wouldn’t have been able to make it easy for him to understand.

As I dug into my food, I thought, Now there’s a fella who’s going to stay here for the duration. Happy in his place–or at least content. He’ll sleepwalk around until he dies and gets composted. Pretty soon after that his atoms will wind up in the vegetables everyone eats and in the tobacco they smoke and in the hay that passes through the goats and donkeys and in the milk everyone drinks. And here he’ll stay in one form or another for good. I shivered a bit when next I imagined the atoms of someone I’d likely known starting a passage through me at that very moment–someone just like him, maybe, or someone I’d probably passed any number of times walking the lanes and furrows and wagon ruts of the farm and the trails to the watchtowers. I hurried up and finished eating, putting that thought out of my mind as best I could. Not for me. Oh, no, not for me. I’d rather wind up a part of a deer’s heart or a fox’s eye than stick around the farm for a long, slow death. I knew then for sure that I’d been right to choose to leave White Cedars. I might get my candle snuffed out but quick in the Big Woods, but better that than have my life slowly gutter out inside the palisades of the farm.


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