It has been a testing day.
It has been a testing year, and I’m close to my breaking point.
Gritting my teeth, I double-down my efforts to free the trapped plow.
It’s a battle of wills, and I’m confident the plow is winning.
Percy, my stoic workhorse, looks on while I grunt and strain. He’s doing his bit, pulling when I ask, but I can see the blade has got wedged under a sizable chunk of rock. A short distance away, Shep, my black mongrel, watches with curiosity.
I push, pull, and get on my knees in the dirt and try to dig around the rock in my path. Shep tries to help—he gets in the way.
This obstacle is more than a mere rock in a field. It represents my life, a thousand big and small happenings that have led to this conjuncture. I convince myself that if I can only move this rock, everything will magically be fine.
I do stupid things like that, try and guess the outcome of mundane activities and allocate mystical properties to getting it wrong or right.
I’m committed now, and the future quality of my life depends on my ability to free the plow.
Time passes. Percy snoozes on his feet, while Shep is lying down with his nose to his paws, seemingly still baffled by his human’s antics.
My functional shirt and breeches are the same color as the dirt by the time I’m done. Finally, when I roll the beast of a rock out of the way, Percy lumbers forward with ease.
I burst into tears.
A wet tongue laps at my cheek, and I throw weak arms around Shep’s neck. “Good boy,” I say as I ruffle the fur on his wriggling body.
I feel like I’ve conquered the world, but I’m so tired I’m shaking, and I can barely regain my feet. Dusk has fallen over the landscape while I’ve been struggling with my belligerent rock. My stomach rumbles in protest, reminding me that I’ve not eaten since this morning.
“Come on, Percy,” I say as I pat his hairy neck, and, leaving the plow in the middle of the field, unhook him from the harness. Shep barks his approval.
Guilt swamps me. I shouldn’t leave the plow in the middle of the field. My father never left a job half done; he’d have finished this small lot in a few hours. I’ve no idea how I’m going to plant it, but I’m going through the process in the hopes that it will all miraculously fall into place.
My tears dry against my grubby cheeks as I lead Percy into his stable, his hooves clattering against the cobbles of the yard. Shep lopes circles around us. He’s probably hoping for food—he’s not alone in this.
The days are getting shorter and the evening wind has bite—my problems are coming to a head.
I take his bridle off and give Percy his feed. He’s a gentle old soul, and we’ve had him since I was a little girl. I can’t remember a time before Percy.
He lifts his head while I’m still busy, snorting for attention, and I stop to pat his neck. There’s a little white at his brows now. He’s getting old.
Beyond the stable door, Shep sits, waiting patiently.
They are all that I have left.
What will I do when Percy goes?
What when they are both gone?
Dashing fresh tears from my cheeks, I kiss Percy’s hairy neck. “Chin up, eh, Percy.”
Closing the stable door, I head over to the rickety, wooden cottage that I call home. Shep is sitting expectantly at the bottom of the three steps that lead to the door, tail beating at the rough, cobbled ground.
There was another place I lived once, but this is the only place I can call home. Only, it’s not a home any more. It hasn’t felt like one since my father died last fall.
Opening the door, I head in. Shep trots in behind. Shadows fill the interior, and I can barely see a thing. The fire has gone out, and it’s not much warmer inside than out. It’s late—I’ve been so distracted by that damn rock.
Shep whines and beats his tail against the floor. “Okay boy, you want the bone?”
The remains of a salted leg of lamb sits on the side under a cloth—this is the last of the stored meat. The beating tempo picks up. How can I resist? I hand him the bone, and he’s off like a shot.
I curse the little fiend. I’ll never get him back inside now he’s got his treat. I shouldn’t really have him in the house, he’s half wolf-hound and meant to guard the site. But ever since my father passed, I’ve been letting him sleep inside.
Occasionally, I also let him on the bed.
The door slams shut as a gust of wind batters it. I lift the bar into place under automation. It’s not like anyone visits anymore. Not since I left that sign. I didn’t need my father’s warning to implement that plan. I’m a small female, helpless—the kind that is preyed upon—visitors are not welcome here.
In the gloom, I can’t see much, only shadows. The table takes up most of the space, the fireplace dominates the rest. To the left of it is an alcove hugging the chimney breast with a heavy drape that can be closed to keep it warm. That’s my bed.
Right of the fireplace, another bedding nook has been closed for a year—that one belonged to my father.
I’m hungry and dirty, but mostly tired. I should light the fire and get cleaned up before I get into bed.
I should eat.
I can’t remember when I last had a drink.
But I’m so damn tired.
This life isn’t for me, not on my own. I’m small, and although I pride myself on my determination, I know I’m wallowing in denial.
I can’t survive on my own, and the stores of food are dwindling at an alarming rate. This is fall, there should be grain and fruit aplenty, but it hasn’t worked out. The rains came before I could gather the few crops and they spoiled in a matter of days. The small orchard became riddled with fungus before the fruit could ripen.
Then the barn developed a leak and the grain stores were ruined.
I’m running out of options, and yet I don’t know what to do for the best. Failing a miracle, which have been in woefully short supply since my father died, I will need to leave soon.
It is a three day trip to the nearest village, the town, another week.
I am prey. This isn’t self-pity talking. This is an acknowledgment of a fact. I am small and weak; I am an Omega. I am a prize that men war over.
I need to leave soon, or I will die here. But that isn’t for today or tonight, but a decision for tomorrow.
“Fire first,” I tell myself, reaching for the tinder box. I try to keep the fire stocked since lighting it is a quest. It can take me a good five or ten minutes to encourage it to catch. The light is fading though, and if I don’t do it now, I’ll have to wait until morning.
I don’t have any other lights since oil for the lamp has run out long since, and that despite rationing it. Once dusk falls, the fire is it.
Kneeling before it, I prep the tinder, and go through the motions of striking and hoping. I can’t see much of what I’m doing, the odd spark, the occasional brief glow.
My hands are shaking, my arms and back are on fire after wrangling with that rock, but I’m determined. If I can light this fire, everything will work out.
The fire becomes a source of personal conquest.
It represents a hope far greater than warmth and comfort.
It represents my life.
I will light this damn fire. This is a quest I can’t afford to fail.
My knees hurt, I swear every muscle in my body is screaming, but I’m not giving up.
But it’s really late, and I can’t see what I’m doing.
And I don’t light the fire.
I try to ignore the bleak cloud my failed quest perpetrates, and the crowding specters judging the sorry state of my life.
Stripping from my filthy clothes, I wash in cold water, and donning my night shift, climb into a cold bed.
Excerpt, Prey © L.V. Lane 2021