Footprints – Part VII

by Gaston Prereth

The village was always deserted at night. Although all the street corners had a dim electric light that provided enough visibility to easily navigate, there was nothing of use to do.  Frederick had often taken a late night walk in the shadows. It helped him think and it meant he could stretch his legs without having to suffer the respectful nods of the villagers.

Tonight, though, he walked with stiff caution. He felt like he was on display.  As if anyone that saw him would immediately be able to see what he was doing, where he was planning on going.  Like an amateur about to commit a crime, he was certain everybody knew what he was up to. Of course, he was about to commit a crime, but he hoped that God would forgive him.  If God was still there.

As he passed between the two medic blocks on the West side of the village he turned left behind Medic block A so that he was no longer in line of sight of the road. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you not bringing anything?” Came a voice next to him and Frederick let out a stifled cry of alarm. He turned to see Ruben’s face, all shadows save for the glint of a white toothed grin. Fredrick relaxed.

“What would I bring? I own six books and half as many habits. I doubt any of them will be useful where we are going.” He could see that Ruben’s arm was bent up to his shoulder, holding the strap of a rucksack slung over his back.  “What have you brought?”

“Just my tools. It felt right to bring them.  Shall we go?” Ruben didn’t wait for a response.  He jumped his rucksack up his back and set off in a slow trudge away from the village. Frederick pulled in alongside him.

“I am sorry you know, for how things ended between us.” Said Ruben as the village drifted away behind them.  “I don’t think I understood the consequences.”

“You showed my notebook to your parents the day before my technician entrance exam, what did you think would happen?”

“I don’t know. I was just so impressed with it, with you. I wanted to share that with everybody. I am sorry. I don’t want to make excuses; I just want you to know it wasn’t malicious. I didn’t do it to help my own chances.”

“I never thought that, but I did hate you for it.” Said Frederick, hoping that some part of him had managed to make it sound sincere.

“And now?”

“Let’s just focus on the job at hand, Ruben. We can’t change the past; it’s the future that is important right now.”  Frederick could feel his eyes welling up and was thankful that the light had faded rapidly since they had moved away from the village.

He had kept the hatred deep inside him for such a long time now that he wasn’t sure it could ever go away. It was the hatred that had spurred him on.  It was the betrayal that had kept him separate from the world.  It was that which had led him to wander the streets in the dark. It was that which had forced him to sit on his stone bench with nature, the last thing that he could trust. The hatred had made him who he was. It was as tightly bound within him as the veins within his body.

The ground underfoot was rocky, made from large plates of rough stone surrounded by foot wide cracks that disappeared down into the bowls of the earth. Some were silted up with dust and sand, but others were like miniature ravines disappearing underground forever. Both men kept their eyes on the ground as they walked, making sure to avoid the gaps in the huge paving stones.

Occasionally they would both pause, as by silent consensus, and look towards the black band of the fields. They couldn’t make out the individual strange stick like growths themselves, but just a deep shadow that hinted at inner movement within. It felt like they were heading towards the end of the universe, the edge of the map.

After around three hundred metres their path was crossed by a sunken causeway around twenty metres wide. The banks on either side were made up of loose shale, but a number of twisting walkways, like snaking rivulets, led up from the flat bottom.

Frederick stopped at the lip of the slope and looked back towards the village.  The individual buildings were still clearly visible, etched against the sepia glow of the street lights.  He suddenly felt very cold.  The village looked so small. A huddle of tiny buildings set against the blackness of the universe.  Ruben had stopped too, dropping his rucksack to the floor and testing the side of the slopes with a cautious foot.  Small rocks tumbled downwards.  They made a peculiar grating sound as they slid down but then rattled and spat out across the hard rock below.

“I’m sure as a kid I went down there once or twice. Somehow it didn’t seem as far then,” said Ruben, forcing himself to break the silence which had grown between them.  “Funny, you’d think it would look smaller.”

“It’s probably just the dark, making it harder to see the bottom. I’m sure we’ll be fine. It is getting up the other side I’m worried about. That’ll be the furthest I’ve ever been from the village.”

“Me too. I think I’ve got some wire in my bag that should be strong enough to support us, I could probably…”

“Let’s just go. We need to get back before its light, otherwise people will ask questions.”

Frederick stepped alongside Ruben and put out a tentative foot on the side of the slope.  The small rocks shifted under him and he felt his foot slide down a little further.

“Be careful, maybe we should walk along a bit and find a more stable path down?”

“Those technician’s really have softened you up, Ruben, we did this a couple of times together as kids. Don’t you remember? You just lean back and step…” As he spoke Frederick moved his other foot on to the slope and the rocks beneath him started to slide.  He lent back, as if he were going to recline on the slope, and let his weight slowly pull him down towards the bottom. He came to a stop lying on his side, his habit pulled up around his waist and his legs cut with small little scratches.

“Nothing to it.” He called back up to Ruben who was still standing at the top, staring down at him.  “Your overalls will probably do a better job protecting you too.”

Ruben looked down at the straight line that Frederick had scored down the bank.  He picked up his rucksack and put it over both shoulders, pulling it tight, before stepping out onto the slope as Frederick had done.

It wasn’t as bad as he had thought.  It was uncomfortable and the sound of the rocks around him sounded more like water cascading from a pump than stones, but he made it to the bottom without any serious scratches. Frederick offered him a hand and pulled him up from where he lay.

“That’s the easy bit done then” Said Frederick with a smile. “Looks like we’re not the first to go this way though.” He pointed at a series of grooves cut in the bank opposite them that looked just like their own tracks down. “Kids must be more adventurous these days, don’t you think? I don’t think anyone of us went beyond this point when we were young.”

“I guess they have less to do these days.  There are more adults about than when we were young, we used to have to help out about the place, but now they have little to do outside of school and prayers. Less imagination too, they can’t entertain themselves without running off into danger.”

Frederick tested a foot against the bank’s side and it quickly slid back. He looked up and down the sunken causeway but could see no other route up.

“Or maybe more imagination.  We were content with what we had, but they want to seem to go further; explore more; understand more.  I think we are going to have to run for it, maybe you should chuck your bag up first?”

Ruben gave Frederick a look that could have smashed a hole in the crystalline dome then, without a word sprinted up the slope.  Loose stones and shale scattered down behind him but his momentum seemed enough and he stood on top of the bank with his hands on his hips, breathing heavily. Frederick, who was thinner than Ruben but had a lot less strength in his legs, took about twice as long to run up the loose stones, but soon enough he was stood beside the technician breathing just as hard.

Before them Brother Douglas’ cabin stood like a monument to everything their world did not understand.  Who knew what they would find inside.  Brother Douglas was the only man who had been excommunicated from their village. He had said things, strange unholy things, which neither the Church nor the technicians could tolerate. He had questioned everything about the village, everything about their existence.  If there was anyone who could help Frederick and Ruben, then it was Brother Douglas. He would know about the Spiders, he would understand what was happening to their world.

“Come on,” Said Frederick once he had caught his breath back. “let’s do this quickly, no one can know we have been here, we must get back before sunrise.”


Continued in Part VIII


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