Meat is murder, and there’s power in the lungs.
For the Quasimodo’s Quasi Oboe Award
The whispers eddy around my ears like salt in a sea breeze, as I bend my back over the shovel. Planting rhubarb this season, and parsnip, though the seasons haven’t been steady since the Grey Winter. Beyond the small crop Jorja and Darcy recline against the bunker, my name on their lips. I focus on turning over the soft soil.
I wonder why we call it the Grey Winter. Perhaps it was originally ‘Great Winter’ and we lost the letters along the years. Or maybe it was the grey ash filling the sky, the flattened concrete dust, the nuclear fallout.
“Hey Tirion,” Jorja calls, a mocking lilt to her voice.
I stab the shovel into the ground and turn towards them. Something small flies through the air and hits me on the chin, leaving a wet smear. The projectile lands at my feet, a strange white shape of hollows and edges. A bone, still warm with blood.
I feel the vomit coming.
Jorja and Darcy laugh.
“Look at her face! She’s going to hurl. Tirion’s soft.”
I taste acid in my throat and run for the huts.
“There was a saying, before the Grey Winter,” says Kel, holding my gaze. “’It’s a dog-eat-dog world’. That’s literally true now – only the strong survive.” The chief’s mane of charcoal hair and flat nose make him look like an old lion.
We sit in the bustling food hut, surrounded by heat and smoke.
“I know the saying Kel. I was alive before the Grey Winter; I’m not that young.”
Kel sniffs. “Then you’ll know I’m serious when I say you need to start eating meat. It’s natural. You owe it to the survival of the community to stay strong.”
I get a whiff of raw flesh and feel sick.
“I didn’t eat animals before the Winter, and I won’t now. If we repeat the mistakes of the Old World, we’ll come to the same end. The planet was collapsing even before the bombs dropped.”
Kel sighs and looks away.
“A challenge!” Kel’s voice booms around the crowd. “Tirion is on trial. She insists on making herself weak, and useless.”
I sit on the dusty ground, hands in my lap. Beside me Jorja snickers.
“Tirion must prove that she’s strong, that her breath can sustain her. Otherwise she must leave, to wander amongst the yellow ghosts.”
Instinctively I look up, at the faraway columns of yellow smoke dancing in the atmosphere.
“Her opponent, young Jorja. Their weapons…”
Kel produces two reed-flutes, holds them high for all to see.
“Whoever holds the longest note is proved the sturdiest.”
As I reach for a flute Jorja jabs me in the ribs. I gasp. Kel seems not to notice.
We put the instruments to our lips. I struggle to fill my lungs.
I summon air. I breathe out.
Twin notes fill the dusk, vibrating. My body swells with the sound, becomes fuller as it empties.
The music halves. I’m still breathing, and Jorja’s not.
“Congratulations Tirion. You have proved your strength.” Kel’s lion eyes are blank. “You may stay.”
“No,” I find myself saying.
His face twitches.
“I won’t stay here. I need to find my own place. I’ll take my chances with the yellow ghosts.”
I walk away, without looking back, across the crops and passed the bunker. Whispers follow me on the breeze. I bend and scoop up a pocket of seeds. Rhubarb this season, and parsnip, though the world hasn’t been the same since the Grey Winter. And maybe that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.