Out of the Woods
T.J. Land © 2016
All Rights Reserved
Ruth was the faster runner, with her long legs and whip-thin frame, while Hermana was the better climber, sure-footed as a goat, with short, strong fingers that could cling like grim death. They raced each other to the mushroom patch, up the steep slope and through the trees, and Hermana arrived to find her best friend performing a cartwheel through a cluster of dead leaves, the late afternoon sunlight flashing through her long black hair.
“Show-off,” Hermana said, getting her breath back and rubbing the ache from her calves.
“Jealous bitch,” Ruth returned amiably. She scampered up to a pale, moss-covered boulder they’d nicknamed the Cod, because it had a bit that looked like a fin, and Hermana had once scratched in a fish-eye and two thin lines representing gills. She pulled Hermana up by the arm, and they hopped across the Cod’s spine and down its tail into a moist, soft patch of dirt below.
Shielded from sunlight most hours of the day by the Cod and surrounded on all sides by drooping firs and slender ash trees, the next ten square metres of bare earth were lousy with mushrooms.
“Hello,” Ruth said to them. She did twee shit like that sometimes. “How’re we all? Keeping busy? T’rific, keep up the good work.”
The mushrooms were their excuse for taking several hours every week—every day, if the weather was good enough—away from their chores. They always went home with two handfuls each, and usually they found berries as well or, if they got lucky, eggs. Hermana’s grandmother made pastries stuffed with them, and Ruth threw them into stews for her brother when he came back from working in the village.
It could have easily been different, Hermana reminded herself whenever she was feeling sour, for though she’d never gone to church, her grandmother had taught her to count her blessings. If she and Ruth had been born on one of the farms in the valley or had had baby siblings who needed taking care of, there’d have been a lot more for them to do. If they had grown up in the village, God forbid, they would have had to worry about getting the money together to afford ribbons and dresses and stockings, because you couldn’t go about shoeless and loose-haired when you crested seventeen in the village. At seventeen, you became a woman.
Hermana snuck a glance at Ruth. Like Hermana, she’d turned seventeen a few months ago, although they both still wore the same ragged clothing they’d worn as children. Ruth’s shirt in particular was too small for her, a fact Hermana had noticed for the first time only last week. It left a band of skin just above her navel exposed, and there was an unpatched hole through which Hermana could see the edge of her left breast.
Ruth looks like a woman, she thought. Unlike herself. When she tied her hair back, she could pass for a boy. Not a bad-looking boy, granted; a damn sight better than a chinless wonders they had down in the village.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, for Ruth had stopped short, sniffing the air like a fox scenting a dog. Hermana followed her example and wrinkled her nose.
“Something’s dead,” Ruth announced. “Maybe a day, day and a half.”
In all the years they’d come here, their feet had never worn down a path through the shaded glade. Ruth took a different route through, every time, sometimes skirting round the edges, sometimes moving in a zigzag, and Hermana always followed in her footsteps. Apart from the hollowed tree trunk where Ruth had carved a picture of a spider and Hermana had carved her name, anyone would think it hadn’t been visited since ancient times. No flowers grew here, nothing but tall weeds and mushrooms, pale, brown, spotty, thin, fat and short and bulbous. Hermana’s grandmother had taught them how to tell the poisonous ones from the good ones, but she didn’t know what they were called in books. Even Hermana, with her two whole years of schooling, couldn’t name more than three of them. So they’d named the rest themselves, Hermana coming up with the more imaginative—Devil’s Candy, Star Dust, Spotted Templeroofs—and Ruth coming up with the more blandly descriptive names—Pretty Whites, Long Stalks, Fat Roundheads.
They found the corpse amidst a clump of Pretty Whites.
It was Ruth who discovered the body, stepping forward with her nose held high, sniffing vigorously, before jumping back with a high-pitched squeak. Apart from a number of bird calls she could pull off, Ruth was not known for high-pitched noises. Hermana looked up from the patch of Fat Roundheads she had been inspecting and then strode over to join her friend, who was standing stock-still with her elbows locked at her sides.
When Hermana saw what she was staring at, she half fell backwards, grabbing at Ruth’s bony shoulder. “That’s…”
“Shut up,” Ruth hissed. Slowly, she took a tentative step forward, and then another.
From a distance, it could have been mistaken for another clump of Pretty Whites, sunken low enough into the soft ground that the tip of its nose rose no higher than the nearest mushroom. It lay on its back, one arm flung behind its head, the other across its abdomen. It might have been sleeping but for the fact its eyes were half-open and rolled back so they could only see the whites.
At that moment, Hermana worked out what had been bothering her since they first came into the glade. The birds weren’t singing. Now that she listened, she realised she couldn’t hear any mosquitoes either, nor any of the hundreds of buzzing, slithering, burrowing beasts that lived off the fungus patch.
“Bugger me. We’ve found a dead person, Ruth.”