Scavengers

Along the road he found a blind girl. Four years old, maybe, smoke-blackened in a tattered and dirty blue dress, standing under a stunted oak.

He coaxed the little girl to come with him. She walked by his side, stumbling a little, clinging to the smoke-and-grease stained sleeve of his coat.

Sometimes over the next few days he carried her -- fording streams, for example, or hiking up steep stretches of the mountain roads. He put her on his shoulders, and she clung with both fists to his hair.

He didn't know what to call the blind girl as she didn't speak. Mute, too?

Finally, he gave her a name: Helen.

*


He'd come up from the wide river valley, walking the back roads past the weed-overgrown and empty farms. Most of the farmhouses were burnt out shells, and those that were not burnt out he skirted anyhow.

He was going high up into the mountains. Maybe as far as the high desert country. His idea was to find a cave to camp in and wait out the next few years, which would undoubtedly be chaotic.

He carried a rucksack with some small camping pots and pans and canned goods and other things in it and two canteens of drinking water and an old bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his right shoulder. His knife was in a sheath at the back of his belt. A small box clinking in the left hand side pocket of his leather coat held the cartridges for the rifle. It was hot and sweaty work to walk all that way carrying all he owned.

At the University he'd taught philosophy. But he hadn't brought along any books but for a thick pocket diary bound in leather with a pencil stuck in the loop. When the pencil ran out he'd have nothing to write with, so he filled the diary's thin pages each night by fire-light slowly and sparingly.

*

It was only a few days after he'd picked up the girl that he turned a bend and saw three people sitting in the dust by the roadside cooking something on a fire. Too late to turn back or go around. He walked forward, raising his right hand.

One of the three -- a teenaged girl, under the layers of dirt, he thought -- got up and dashed into the woods. The two others, both men with thick beards in tattered and stained clothing, stood up slowly, one holding a stick.

He saw what they were cooking over the fire -- it was a dog. Grease dripped and spat as the flames licked it. The smoke was pungent. He began to salivate despite himself, yet he was also nauseated. He wasn't going to eat dog.

Evening, he said. The men didn't reply. The one holding the stick grinned. The other came forward a few steps.

He could hear the girl moving in the brush, cracking twigs. It was near dark. Already, the owls were hooting.

She wasn't going off, as he'd first thought, but moving around to flank him.

And when she dashed into the woods, hadn't she been holding something?

His scalp went cold.

A bow, maybe.

And didn't she have something lashed to her back? Arrows?

He stopped in the road, and swung the blind girl down to stand beside him.

Let me see that rifle there, the man who'd come forward said. His voice sounded wheezy, like an unused instrument.

He replied: No.

His ears were prickling. The girl in the brush had stopped moving. Right now she would be fitting an arrow onto the bowstring. His stomach turned to ice. He forced a smile.

This is all I've got, he said. I can't hand it over to you.

The man said through his beard: Oh yes? We'll see about that.

He shrugged the rifle from his shoulder and walked toward the man holding it out as if to put it meekly into his hands, but in the last few steps he broke into a run and, bringing up the butt, smashed the man's chin. The bearded man grunted and fell in the dust.

He kept running and knocked away a blow from the other man's stick with the barrel and stepped around him and, grappling in panicked silence, managed to get the barrel under his chin and drew the writhing body against him tightly, the shoulderblades pressing to his chest and top of the man's head under his chin, and shouted: You, in the brush, come out or I'll kill him.

After a few seconds, the teenaged girl stepped out, wide-eyed and cruel-looking. She was holding the bow drawn back. The arrow wasn't pointed at him but at Helen, standing still in the road.

Let go, she said, or I'll shoot this one.

He called out: No. Shoot her with that arrow and I'll kill him then you too. Put it down.

She lowered the bow and dropped the arrow at her feet then dropped the bow next to it with a clatter.

The man he was holding to him had stopped grappling and was now just gurgling a little. He took away the rifle barrel and stepped back and the bearded man fell on his side, kicking and wheezing and trying to crawl.

He pointed the rifle sight at the teenaged girl and said: Back away.

She did.

He went forward and holding the rifle at ready one-handed bent and picked up the arrow.

Toss over the others, he said.

She took the other arrows -- she had four -- out of her homemade quiver and tossed them rattling onto the asphalt. He bent and picked those up, too. He stuck them into his belt.

Helen, he said. Come on, now. Helen stumbled forward and he took her hand and backed away. The teenaged girl was standing still, her arms hanging.

After he'd backed off ten paces or so he slung the rifle and swept up Helen and put her on his shoulders and walked off double-time. Up the road to the next bend and around it in the almost-dark, moonless tonight, starry and vast and ringing with those deep eerie owl-hoots.