She was sure there’d been something there, something she hadn’t seen for a very long time. From back when the world was … well, what it had been before they’d had to start over. But when she’d woken Sam up and dragged him out of their little cabin, there was nothing to see, and now he was acting all hyper vigilant and careful around her again. She knew why. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been episodes before. But she was confident this wasn’t one of those. There hadn’t been one for ages – which could mean she was due one. She knew Sam – and the rest of the community – hoped that her body’s chemistry had changed and settled. How she hoped the same.
The cravings had been bad when it first happened, she’d never have survived without Sam and his friends. Her friends had bailed pretty darn quick and, despite their scorn of Sam’s survivalist way and his prepper friends, it was they who’d taken her in and coped with the onslaught of her emotions running rampant without drugs to modify them. Mercy didn’t doubt it had been a mighty big ask. She didn’t remember all of it – what she did remember was grim enough – but ever since, there’d been those half-spoken exchanges, words and phrases which seemed to mean so much to everyone else … but nothing to her. She’d asked Sam, but he’d brushed it off, insisting it was nothing for her to worry about. When the frequency of the episodes has settled down, she’d pushed him on it. Eventually, he’d cracked, insisting that if it didn’t matter to them, it really needn’t matter to her. Over time, she’d come to see the truth in that statement, choosing instead to be appreciative and grateful for their acceptance of her.
Working hard when she was well, harder than she needed to, Mercy felt better for pulling extra duty in return for those times she hadn’t been able to do her bit, indeed when she’d added to the heavy load everyone already carried. So, when there’d been nothing for Sam to see that night, she knew to keep quiet. Once Sam relaxed, Mercy started going for a stroll in the night air before bed. The summer months had been hopeless, for it was too late when darkness finally fell, but Mercy steeled herself for the wait till autumn returned. It wouldn’t be that long, for one thing they’d all had to get used to in this new world of theirs was waiting – for the seasons to change, for crops to be ready for harvesting, for planting time to come round, for the ice to melt so they could fish, for the long winter to pass so wild animals didn’t get hungry and hang around their little group of cabins.
With autumn, the evenings started to draw in and Mercy caught sight of it a few times – far off in the distance – just the briefest of glimpses. But, ever careful not to arouse Sam’s suspicions, she hugged the knowledge of it to herself. Until she was sure it was what she thought it was, she was saying nothing.
The nights and mornings had been frosty for a few weeks when they had the first of the big snow falls. As Mercy put on her outdoor garb, Sam hurried to join her. Curbing the desire to be alone, she accepted his company with good grace, holding his hand and chatting while they walked in the fresh snowfall, their footsteps crunching beneath them. There’d been the odd flash, and Mercy saw Sam had noticed something – though he said nothing. She accepted the wisdom of his desire to wait and see before saying anything to the others, even to her, but her delight grew – she wasn’t having an episode.
After a while, Bob and Julia tapped on their door asking to join their stroll. Mercy feigned surprise, but she’d noticed Sam and Bob deep in conversation over chores the past few days. Julia took Mercy’s hand as they walked out, leaving Bob and Sam to walk together. Right on time the flashes appeared, leaving Bob and Julia gasping aloud. The next night, another couple joined them, and so it went on till the whole community was out of doors walking, waiting and watching.
Then, just as suddenly, the flashes stopped. It wasn’t long before worry set in. What were the flashes, who’d made them, what were they going to do now the flashes had stopped? The little community’s mood plummeted and no-one was sleeping well. Mercy and Sam still went for their night time stroll, but now they weren’t alone, for the community had re-instated their watch rota.
It had been a few weeks of solo strolling and no flashes when it happened – and this time it wasn’t just a flash, but a truly magnificent sight. Rapidly shouting for everyone to join them, Sam and Mercy gazed at the unmistakable sign of not just of life, but intelligent and innovative life. One not simply able to simply generate electricity, but having a desire for beauty and decoration. The size of the display left reflections in the broad expanse of lake which lay between them. As some of their number gazed in joy and awe, others worried how they’d not known another community lay so close by? While they’d stopped searching a while back … it’d only seemed a year or two ago, till Julia remembered their last search had been the night her youngest was born, and he’d just celebrated his 13th birthday.
Activating those old plans for rapid reaction to such signs, morning saw an advance party setting off to trek around the lake. Nervously, the remaining community members gathered by the lakeside at dusk. With darkness came the light display, then – unmistakably – two flares. Two to indicate success and safety. Relief turned rapidly into joy, as they broke into loud cheering. Lighting the large bonfire they’d sent the day preparing, they remained outdoors until the lights went out.
Mid-morning saw the return of their advance party … and they brought with them new friends.
© Debra Carey, 2020
Everyone knew about the tree in the middle of the field. Knew it so well that they didn’t really think about it. A tree had stood in that field, it was said, for thousands of years. The pedants and the know-it-alls would say it couldn’t possibly be that old, it wasn’t big enough, very old trees like that don’t grow in this part of the world. The local wisdoms would point out that it had never been said it was that tree, just a tree. At least, those were the sort of conversations that would be had, if anyone remembered to have them; but whilst everyone knew about the tree, no ever talked about it. People would notice the tree as they passed by, dredge up some half-forgotten lore and then – nothing. As soon as the tree was out of view, it fell back into whatever cellar such memories languish in.
Katy was walking home. It was inky black, but she trusted her own knowledge of the of the paths hereabouts, and the pepper-spray in her bag, more than she did the slightly drunk friends she had left behind. There was no Moon to guide her way tonight, but she triangulated on the flood lights of the church, up on the hill, and those of the manor house away to the right and across the fields, as she emerged from the copse of beech trees. She took a moment to listen to the rustles of small creatures shuffling through the undergrowth. There was a coughing sound which meant a hedgehog was exclaiming its ownership of some part of the hedgerow, and the bone-chilling yowl of a fox. The path continued between a double row of hedges, a thorny demarcation separating two fields and using the right of way as a buffer state between two unfriendly neighbours.
She nearly missed it. Out of the corner of her eye something seemed out of place; another step and it would have seeped away from her. Some unexpected firing of neurons caused her to step back, to see what she had only glimpsed before. She hadn’t imagined it: in a slight dip of the hedgerow she could just see the tree in the middle of the field. In the darkness of this night of the new moon, it should have been invisible, but no. It was lit up in the light shed from a strange, squat building that stood near its base.
She pulled out her phone, shook it to activate the torch and set about finding a gap that she could squeeze through. It took her a minute or two, and when she wasn’t looking at the tree she found her mind becoming fuzzy, wondering why she was doing this. She persisted: the fox she’d heard earlier must have a trail around here, and she found the hole that it had made. She squeezed herself through, breathing in, and popped out into the field.
Ahead of her, the tree reached up into the night. As she got closer, she realised that the lit-up structure was some sort of pergola, festooned with strings of fairy lights. There was no consistency to these: some were bauble shaped, and others had been decorated with bits of plastic to look like butterflies. Closer still and she realised that she could see a figure, standing at a distance of some 25 metres or so.
“Ah, that you, young Katy? Thought we’d be seeing you here some time.”
“I’m sorry, who is that?”
“No need to be sorry, young’n, powerful dark night, and these blame lights don’t actually much do they. It’s me, Bill Darrow.”
“What are doing here Bill? What’s going on?”
“Ah, well, that’s all of piece, really. Vicar’n tell’n more’n I, but this be one of those thin places you hear of. We never know much ahead of time when the door opens, but it’s always on’t a new moon. Vicar’n me’n a few others come up here to make sure none get lost. N’I been thinking for some time that you’d be joining us, eventually.”
They stood together for the rest of the night. Bill offered her hot, sweet tea from a thermos, and squashy fudge from a paper bag. The inky night faded to the colour of much washed jeans, and tendrils of red threaded their way across the horizon. Despite her scrutiny, afterwards Katy couldn’t remember whether the lights had gone out, whether the structure had faded or simply winked out.
The little group formed a knot and headed back to the vicarage – apparently a full English was on offer to the watchers, and Katy was invited.
“I have questions” Katy said to the Vicar.
“I’m sure you do” she replied, “I’m sure you do”.
© David Jesson, 2020