AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
In Jenniey Tallman’s “We Are Persistence Runners,” a tribe of displaced persons live in the woods, running, hunting, and eschewing possessions. Their leader, Pluh, dictates the tribe’s behavior. After a protracted disaster, there is no city to return to; there is only farther to run. “He believes if we do these things, if we hunt and gather and own nothing, we will remember somehow. He says someday it will just be there again — our humanity.”
Post apocalyptic fiction is a flourishing genre. In the past two years, we’ve seen the release of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and Edan Lepucki’s California, all buzzed-about novels and well received. “We Are Persistence Runners” subverts many aspects of apocalyptic fiction while still managing to satisfy expectations of the genre. As in P.D. James’s classic SF novel Children of Men, society has collapsed because no one is having children. In “We Are Persistence Runners,” however, the halt in procreation is not due to infertility, but lack of male sexual desire. Tallman smartly presupposed that lack of male desire is as violent a dictator as male desire, and as a result, female lust becomes criminalized.
Tallman smartly presupposed that lack of male desire is as violent a dictator as male desire, and as a result, female lust becomes criminalized.
The identity of the story’s narrator, Orla, is enmeshed in female desire more than most: in her previous life, she was a sex worker that serviced only women. Unlike a post-societal fantasy in which one never has to report to the office again, Orla’s attachment to her profession persists beyond societal collapse, as does the need for her services: “Late at night, gathered around a fire with the other women, histories slip out. One was a lawyer, one was a housewife, one was an evangelical who went door-to-door handing out salvation. Lilibet is an artist and my only friend. Unlike the others here, we still speak of ourselves in the present tense.”
When I read the novels mentioned earlier in this introduction, I wondered, without much success, if there is a particular female interest in apocalypse, or if the apocalypse, as imagined by women, differs from the visions imagined by men. With its explicit interest in gender politics and heterosexuality, “We Are Persistence Runners” has once again stoked that line of questioning in me, still with little result. What is certain is that one’s imagining of a post-societal world depends on one’s experience of society. Considering its etymology, it’s no surprise that apocalypse is a favorite device of fiction. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokaluptein: apo, “un,” and kaluptein, “to cover.” Apocalypse is to uncover. But what, exactly? In this story Jenniey Tallman uncovers in her protagonist an enduring desire for power that is inextricably linked with tenderness, and the ways in which a new society — on the one hand, completely unrecognizable — remains a distorted image of what came before.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
We Are Persistence Runners by Jenniey Tallman
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The carnivores are walking single file through the forest and the boars are digging up the potatoes. We fear strangers here, not wild animals. The lanky man is telling me to Run-Run-Run; I tell him I need water and rest, so he can piss off. He is our leader and I love him, but I get ornery when I cannot breathe.
Lilibet and Jorge are hoarding things. I have seen them. We are not to keep anything here but they have a collection. Lilibet has bird bones mostly, but also antlers, skulls, and butterflies. She pierces barberry spines through their gauzy bodies to keep them flat on a sheet of birch bark. It is one of the only rules we have: No Hoarding. Jorge has dug a pit for Lilibet and she stays back when we go hunting. Our leader has yet to find out. He will catch on soon enough.
We are all skinny here, long and tall, and we run barefoot. I can only run for a few miles before my breath starts catching. Shortly after that, I will pass out if I do not slow down and walk, but we are persistence runners and our leader has little tolerance for whatever ails me. He bullies, tells me to Push Harder, and recommends a change of diet. He says we are all weakening and he is disgusted.
Memories slip back in sleep and rush away with the light. I was a sex worker before. It was my livelihood and my passion. I was married. I had a dog, a cat, a child named Max. Some days I took the boy to work and hoped he wouldn’t sneak a peek around the curtain. At night my husband and I laughed at the prospect: What would Max think, to see that? How would we ever explain it?
We are slow here in the valley. Though our run is not fast, by running single file and never stopping we can outlast all sorts. The lions do not even try to get us now. They look at us as though we were a hedge and what does a lion care for a hedge? Sometimes they remember their own histories and grumble about us because they are not our rulers. They know better than to start an upheaval about it. Our leader will stomp them down quick. He runs the children hardest: through the forest every morning and some struggle to keep up. It is for the best. The sight of them running slow and quiet through the trees, leaping over rocks, fatigued but persistent, is enough to remind us.
In my previous life, I pushed carrots into women. That is what I did. I did not touch the women, did not kiss them, did not want them. I peeled the carrots carefully, shaped them just right, pushed them in gently, and maneuvered them just so. The women bent over holding onto the back of a chair. Relax for me, I’d say, breathe out. Okay, here we go. I was good at my job. All the women came to me.
“Orla! Run. Pace yourself. Breathe,” our leader orders me.
My cheeks grow red and my breath catches. There is a name for this weakness I cannot recall. Soon I will vomit and then pass out.
“Orla! Get up. Stop moping there on the ground. Stop being a crybaby.”
He never touches me when I fall. He never picks me up or offers comfort. Lilibet helps me though. She bandages my wrist, my ankle, my knee. She massages my shoulders, offers me water. Lilibet looks around cautiously before pulling a package out of the ornate leather pouch she keeps tied to her waist. She smiles at me as she gently peels many layers of fresh leaves from the parcel to reveal a snake skeleton, which she dangles up in the light.
“Why do you have that?” I whisper, avoiding eye contact.
She ignores me. “Look at all the tiny bones,” she says. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
I worry what will happen to Lilibet. She is not good at following the rules. “You’ll get in trouble,” I remind her quietly.
She holds the skeleton out to me, nodding for me to take it. It looks so delicate that I think it will fall apart; it is far stronger than I’d imagined. Hundreds of tiny curved bones repeat and narrow until they are nothing larger than a pine needle.
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her, testing the sharpness of the fangs against my finger.
“You should keep it,” she says. “I want you to have it.”
I wrap it carefully in the leaves and store it in a hole I dig beside my sleeping tree. At night, I lie under it and try to guess the name of our leader. Nothing seems to fit. There is a sound that’s just about right, but it’s hardly a name, just a noise. It is the noise his feet make when they thump along, running. Actually, it’s not the noise of his feet. It’s the noise between his feet hitting the ground and the silence that follows. Owing to this, I think of him as Pluh.
I have been in the valley for at least three years, long enough to have come to love this place but not so long I’ve forgotten my family. There are more women than men in our tribe, but it isn’t so easy to tell the difference, especially with the young. They speak to each other in a language barely recognizable, more of a low birdsong than words. When Max was a baby, our language was similar. We spent endless hours chirping and murmuring away at one another and when he was upset, the smallest croak was all it took to alert me to his needs. Some mothers spoke to their babies in words and sentences, urging them to try Mama, yes, and ouch, but I cherished our freedom from language. I turn my eyes from the children, terrified of seeing my son among them.
Men and women are not treated differently here. We do not have separate tasks and procreation is forbidden, as it is everywhere. The children come in ample numbers from the cities to be initiated into the tribe when they reach puberty. We run a pair of them across the river, to the farthest edge of the valley, and leave them there. They are to spend the night alone and then run back to the clearing at first light. Less than half ever return. I was never asked to complete the initiation and Lilibet would never have passed it without help. Pluh prefers the children to us. He says they are Stronger. More Skilled. Devoted.
Lilibet and Jorge arrived out of nowhere with the snow last year and I was sent by Pluh to run Lilibet and a girl he had collected from the cities across the river. He was testing me — testing my perseverance as well as my devotion. Lilibet was much older than most who come here and the girl she was paired with was too young. Leaving them in the snow was not a good idea and I gave them each a ration of jerky out of pity. As I was leaving I felt Lilibet’s eyes on me, pleading. I knew they would never make it back to the clearing. I gave them the rest of the jerky and healing plants I had in my pouch. Jorge snuck out three nights later and returned with Lilibet. The younger girl did not return.
Late at night, gathered around a fire with the other women, histories slip out. One was a lawyer, one was a housewife, one was an evangelical who went door-to-door handing out salvation. Lilibet is an artist and my only friend. Unlike the others here, we still speak of ourselves in the present tense. I don’t think Pluh was ever the leader he is now — most of the tribespeople miss their former selves, but Pluh wears his leadership as if it is his destiny.
Pluh encourages selective disregard for certain undesirable people. A person unfit to run for twenty miles or to climb a steep mountain, to go without food for three days and survive in the harshest of weather will perish and Pluh says it is for the best. He does not see color or gender or age. We should all be Equally Strong, he says. Some would call him a fair leader. I am drawn to his aloof nature, to his charismatic speeches, to his brilliant blue eyes. I wonder whether the other women feel the same.
The first time I passed out, I did not know what was happening. Pluh had been yelling at me to keep up, and though my lungs ached and my knees felt like rubber, I was trying. I stopped to cough and then I was on the ground, below our leader, who wore an expression of confusion — as though my inability to stay conscious was insulting. He soon pulled himself together to begin yelling, “Orla! Get up! What are you doing there on the ground?”
So, I got up. I walked a while. I sat down whenever my head began to feel clouded.
When we are on the hunt, we run alongside the animals. At first, the herd is in front of us. In time we single out a fatigued animal, which one of us will chase for hours. Each of us has two strong legs to run on; we carry water; we sweat through our whole bodies. The animals are helpless to our persistence. Pluh tells us if we do it right, if we run at a pace to make our bodies numb, we will enter a trance and forget where we are and what we are doing. Whenever I believe myself to be reaching this state, I always wake up to realize I have simply passed out again. This sounds funny, when I think of it. It is not really so funny. Our life is very serious. Running is serious. That I cannot run is a grave flaw.
The entire tribe follows the runner’s tracks to where the animal has been overtaken and together we make camp, skin the beast, and make a fire to smoke the meat. We empty the stomach and use it like a canteen. We like the metallic taste it leaves there.
The arrival of Jorge and Lilibet caused a disturbance within our tribe. Most of us wanted to turn them away. We held a council and were only one vote away from shunning them. It had been a hungry year and the winter was only beginning. Many women still resent Jorge’s presence among us. He is too affectionate with Lilibet, too singularly devoted. This takes away from his usefulness to the tribe. I agree with the women. He should learn to work for us all.
The carrots I used with the women were parboiled for sterility, peeled with a sterile peeler, and, of course, used only once. A client was free to take the carrot home if she liked. Cooked, they were delicious. I grew the carrots myself, in a special bed of muck and sand. I grew marigolds, ginger, and Echinacea in the same bed. I was very proud of my gardening skills.
I remember pushing a carrot into a tall woman. She is pretty in a quiet way. Her face shows a trace of makeup and her short hair is styled and dyed whitish-blonde. She is comfortable with me and does not make any noise until the end when she calls out a little, which startles me. When I am done, we joke with one another as she hands me the money: $100 for the first visit, and $50 thereafter. Her face is open and her eyes shine. I ask about her daughters; she has two young girls. I don’t wonder about her husband, who she says has become disinterested in sex. By now this is a familiar story; the woman and I joke that they are putting something in the water — perhaps some chemical to dampen the urge. But it is not really such a joke and we both know it.
I have never felt a carrot inside of me. It wasn’t necessary, and my husband did not suggest it. Which is not to say we never thought of it. Had we spoken about it? Yes, in the early days, we did. In the early days we spoke of many things that are now only distant memories.
Some mornings, before the sun has fully broken, I yield to the past. Certain moments return with such clarity I cannot even turn my head a little to the left, because my old black alarm clock might be sitting on the night-table. Soon I’ll hear my husband clattering dishes in the kitchen downstairs and Max yammering away about breakfast. I have to touch the dirt beneath me to remind myself of where I now lie, staring at the woven branches above. This is a dangerous game. Staying strong requires I do not remember too much. But I must remember the carrots to stay strong.
Lilibet and I go out gathering. We collect the ergot that infects the rye and use it for poisoning our arrowheads. We collect it for ourselves as well, to ingest around the fire at night. Only a little, though — too much will kill you, one way or the other. During the trials that took place, as our society fell apart, ergot was accused of causing “The Hysteria”: young girls, running wild through the streets, ripping off clothing, and grabbing anything in sight. So many girls were imprisoned for the crime of hyper-sexuality, only to wither in the camps. I had heard the stories of self-mutilation that went on there. But, until I saw it myself I did not believe them.
The girls who come to us now, the girls Pluh collects from the camps, they are not wild things. The cages had a way of taming them. Less than a month in the cages and they stopped seeking the light and instead hid in shadow. Two months and they stopped resisting the beatings, the degradations, they became grateful for the food scraps. But though the girls may be tame, they are not normal. Some had pulled nearly all the hair from their bodies, others bit themselves relentlessly, one girl held her breath until she passed out. We do our best to heal them all.
Lilibet was never in the cages. I do not think she and Jorge were from the cities at all; they didn’t have the stink of it on them. When Lilibet and I go out together, she finds things, little things for keeping. She crouches close to the ground to examine shells and colorful dead bugs. She picks them up and holds them to the light and usually puts them back but sometimes stuffs them into her pouch. I try not to notice. Sometimes her flouting of our rules is just too arrogant.
“You know you can’t take those things back,” I say to her. “What if he finds out?”
Lilibet looks down at a small snail shell she has cupped in her palm. For a moment I think she will tip her hand to allow the shell to fall back to the ground. Instead, she stares defiantly into my eyes and drops the shell into her pouch.
“Who do you think you are,” I yell, grabbing her pouch away and dumping its contents to the ground. “Taking all these things?”
Lilibet laughs. “Just one more,” she says, and calmly kneels to clean the mess I’ve made. She dusts each trinket, shell, and bone off before replacing it in her pouch.
The way she hums and turns her back to me reminds me of Max. He was always begging me for small items from the shops in town. Marbles with swirling colors, bouncy balls, stickers, and jawbreakers — which he said were too beautiful to eat. I’d have to bargain with him to get out of the store without a fight: one marble, no more. But this one is for you, he’d say, knowing it would win me over. Sometimes, everything reminds me of him.
A small animal overhead, angry at our presence, throws tree nuts down on us. I yell up at him, trying to forget about Max.
“Did you ever have any children?” I ask Lilibet.
“No,” she says, “I couldn’t get pregnant. Who could?” She laughs. “What about you?”
“No,” I lie. Then I change my mind. “Yes. I had a son. His name was Max. He was six when I last saw him.”
Lilibet puts her hand on mine. “What color was his hair?”
“Brown? No,” I shake my head, “it is blond, it was blond. Who knows; what is blond, anyway? It was soft.”
Lilibet sighs. I cannot look at her. The creature in the branches above throws a nut hard against my head. I stand quickly and roar up at the trees to scare him away.
Pluh tells us People Were Made For Running. It is our Natural State, he says. “We stand tall on strong knees. We are meant to run barefoot on a soft forest floor.” Pluh says that we are going back to an original state by living this lifestyle. I often wonder who he was before the cities went dark. He has little body hair and no facial hair at all. The hair on his head is long and matted together in ropes.
Natural. It is a word Pluh uses often. He believes if we do these things, if we hunt and gather and own nothing, we will remember somehow. He says someday it will just be there again — our humanity. I don’t know what I think, about humanity. Lately, I doubt it more and more. Strange men periodically come from the cities, demanding allegiance. Allegiance to what? They take our meat and search our bodies. When they find a girl here, a girl who should not be here, they tie her to a tree in the clearing and the lions get her at nightfall. I can still remember far enough back to when she would have been raped instead. Before the men lost their sexuality, and with that the women lost all hope of babies, I counseled girls in my clinic about how to be safe in a crowd at night, how to avoid unwanted pregnancy, how to report date rape. The strangers wait and watch, as if it is a show. It is an awful sound. Pluh blames himself. When he cries, I am convinced he was never one of them.
In the cities, I had an office just like any counselor. A waiting room, music, magazines, toys for children, a guest book. I dressed conservatively and conducted cursory interviews with clients beforehand. My forms were simple and to the point. There was no box for gender: I only served women. Occasionally a man would attempt to sneak in. It was just part of the job. They left when I walked briskly away into the other room, ordering them to get dressed. I did not know why they came to my office. We were all looking for answers; maybe they thought I had them. Maybe some memory of lust lured them to me.
On cold nights, the tribe gathers around a fire. I sit next to Pluh, hoping he will notice my closeness. He does not. I become agitated and move closer to him, pressing my arm against his side and feeling for warmth. He shifts away from me.
“Orla, are you feeling all right? Have you had too much ergot?” He asks this as if I were nothing but a careless girl.
Back to nature. Back to nature. It is his mantra, and yet, when it comes to the most natural thing of all he is as stunted as every man in the cities.
“Fine,” I shake my head. “Fine, I feel just fine. Yes, maybe I have had too much.”
I miss my husband. I miss my son. I miss touch and am so lonely I might as well be back in the cages. The other women must feel the same.
In early spring Lilibet and I go walking in a quiet section of forest by the river. Lilibet is talking about leaving, making off for another tribe.
“Are there other tribes?” I ask.
She shrugs at me. “Maybe. Before I came here, I heard things. A chanting sound. Maybe voices. Maybe birds.”
We walk toward a clearing near the river where the droughts have begun to move the baked plains into the forest. The ground we walk on is red and cracked, bumpy and dry, with no way of getting to the water. The water rushes wildly below, dirt red and crashing. We stand quietly, looking, listening.
“I’m pregnant.” Lilibet says.
“No,” I say quietly. Then, “No,” again, louder. “That isn’t possible, Lilibet, no.”
“I have been gaining,” she says, pulling up her shirt to show me the tightness of the strap around her waist.
The sight deflates me. It has been so long. Surely, they will believe she has powers. It simply doesn’t happen like this. “I can give you herbs,” I say. “Herbs and roots — to get rid of it. I know the ones to use.”
I notice a patch of wild carrot growing by a tree and point it out to Lilibet. “There. Look, just there.”
I stoop close to the plant and finger its strong white flowers, remembering the time I spent in the library as a young woman, learning everything I could about the carrot family, Umbelliferae. The Umbrella Family, as Max used to call it. A heaviness takes hold of my chest.
“Lilibet, I can make a tea from these seeds. We won’t have to worry about this thing.”
She looks at me and shakes her head no.
“You are planning to keep it?” I ask.
Lilibet says nothing.
I stand up and say we should get back.
She grabs my arm. “Orla? Will you tell on me?”
“Lilibet, we really have to get back now. The light is fading.”
“Not until you promise,” she says.
“We cannot stay here. The lions. We have to get back.”
“Why won’t you promise?”
The lions will not hunt our tribe, so long as we are in pairs — it is a tenuous arrangement that we all honor. But once the light goes down, it is best we are not out in the open. We have no way of knowing where missing people go. They may well be responsible.
“If they do not patrol tonight, we will pay tomorrow,” I remind her. She still will not budge.
“Not now,” she says. “I am too tired from the walking. I have to rest.”
So, we wait a while. As the light falls deeper I hear the presence of hungry beasts among us. Bugs begin to emerge from the cracks in the red earth. Pluh is nowhere near and Lilibet calls for Jorge who is too far away to hear.
“Lilibet, just walk. You can walk.”
“I can’t,” she says, “I am too tired.”
Lilibet is always too tired. Too tired to help skin the animals, too tired to gather ergot, too tired to run, too tired to do anything except collect useless trinkets. I consider leaving her there alone with her pretty little pouch. I have her climb onto my back and her weight on me convinces me that Pluh is right. The weak have no place in our tribe.
I carry her all the way to where Jorge has dug a pit and I drop her in and scowl at him. I can feel the heat in my face, and my chest is tightening; my own weakness angers me more.
“I will not do it again,” I say. “Next time I will leave her to the lions. You and Lilibet are on your own.”
Jorge does not like to hear this and pleads with me. I tell him to beg all he wants; it will change nothing. I look down at Jorge and he looks so pitiful.
“I came looking,” he says. “I worried, when it got dark. I didn’t know what to do.”
I had not considered Lilibet’s weight on him until then. The truth is uncomfortable. Here in the valley we make deals with the strong and devour the weak. We make sacrifices.
“Don’t worry,” I tell Jorge. “Everything will be fine.”
Because of the time Lilibet and I spent in the clearing, the lions hold a council and so does Pluh. When the lions begin to grumble angrily, our leader knows that something has happened and goes to everyone in the tribe to find out who started it.
When he comes to me, I choose my words carefully. “Well, if Lilibet had not been picking up rocks by the river, we would not have been late.”
“Why should she be picking up rocks?”
I set my gaze to the ground. “I wouldn’t know. You know how Lilibet is.”
“No, Orla, I don’t. How is Lilibet?”
“She is slow. She is careless.” I meet his eyes, “She is gaining.”
Pluh looks carefully at me and raises an eyebrow. I nod.
When Pluh finds Lilibet he is furious. He throws her collections to the ground, crushes her skeletons, and tears apart her butterflies. Lilibet is yelling for him to stop. It is no use — Pluh’s mind is made up. He goes to Lilibet and holds his hands on her stomach. She stares at me.
“Get rid of it.” He turns away.
Lilibet lets out an awful sound. She falls to her knees and grabs at his arm. Pluh shakes her off and turns to the group that has gathered around.
“She will get rid of THIS THING or she will leave,” Pluh announces.
Jorge is killed in the night. We do not speak of it.
Since the uproar, Pluh is becoming harder on all of us and I fear for my place in the tribe. I pass out while we are chasing antelope and he does not stand over me yelling: Orla! Orla, Get Up! What Is The Matter With You? I wait for him and I listen for him and I miss the sound of his voice but only hear the rhythm of his feet heading off without me: pluh, pluh, pluh.
If I do not make myself useful I will soon find myself outcast, again. In the cities, before I came into the tribe, my house was raided and my office torn apart. A chunk of my hair was pulled out and my scalp bled for days. A husband of one of my client’s led them to me. He had come to my office without even trying to disguise his gender and insisted that I show him what I did. His lips twisted into a crooked smile when I refused.
By then, nearly all the men had become suspicious of sex and pleasure. Even my own husband preferred almost anything to my touch. When I tried to initiate contact, he’d look at me as if I’d suggested smearing ourselves with feces. It is no wonder I was pushing carrots into women.
We all want to know why this happened, how we came to be this way. In time, it was not just me who thought chemicals were added to the water, but why we had been systematically poisoned was harder to understand. It may have been to counter the population explosion that nobody wanted to talk about, perhaps it was an experiment that got out of hand, some believed it may have been part of a more sinister plot to take away women’s innate power. We all resisted these theories. Some of us wondered if it is not so easily explained. Must everything have an answer? What mattered most was that those of us who saw it coming were ridiculed and imprisoned. By the time the full effects were felt — men not only lacking lust but virility too and women going insane from unfulfilled desires — we could do nothing about it. It was simply too late. We had to watch it all fall apart and hope that something would save us. For many of us now, Pluh is that hope.
The man with the crooked smile threw me against the wall of my office.
“Show me!” he yelled, and grabbed me around my neck. “Show me. Show me,” he chanted, banging my head into the wall. I was just about to lose consciousness when the door rang, and a client came in. He dropped me to the floor and left quickly. I knew he’d be back.
“Orla? Orla?” she asked me. “Orla? Are you all right?”
I sat stunned on the floor holding my neck while the woman said my name and tried to offer me water. Sometimes I can still feel those hands on my neck and when I run my finger gently along the surface of my skin, I can feel the raised scars where his fingers dug into me.
I went home directly and told my husband what had happened. I told him I was going to shut down the office and we agreed to leave the cities together. We should have left right then. We should have abandoned the cat and dog, packed Max into the car, and driven as fast as we could. But we delayed: it was late, the car’s tank wasn’t full, and we foolishly thought we should be well rested for whatever was to come. They came in the night. For months I curled up in my cage mourning the loss of my son, my husband, and my life. Then Pluh was there and he was walking me down a long snowy road away from the cages, away from hunger, away from grief.
The women all talk in hushed voices about the baby and about Lilibet. No one wants to see her go. They are too busy remembering their own pleasure and nurturing, and believe Lilibet is the answer they forgot to look for. Some of the women begin slicking oil into their hair and drawing intricate designs onto their bodies to entice the men, but it is the lions who notice. The air grows heavy with ergot and lust. Lilibet sits on the ground where Jorge was buried, refusing to eat or speak. The women want to believe in whatever this devotion represents. Her act of mourning is soon seen as an act of hope.
Pluh is pushing the children extraordinarily hard and we have lost four of them across the river. The carnivores sense the unrest and begin circling closer and closer to our camp. In time, we will be reduced to living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks of a ruined city. I do not want to return to that life. Cannot return to those horrible people with their anger and hatred, with their quiet — and not so quiet — violence. I am a part of this tribe now and I will only fight to remain such, and who could blame me? After the loneliness I have known, how good it feels to say WE.
Our tribe requires strong leadership from people unafraid of sacrifice. We are two of a kind, Pluh and me. I go to him. I tell him what I can do for our tribe.
“I can stop what is surely coming,” I say.
“What are we to do?” he asks, and his voice does not sound so strong, and his eyes are not so brilliantly blue. “They will find out. They will come from the cities and destroy everything we’ve built here. She has to go; the baby has to go.”
“I understand,” I tell him. “A time will come for babies. This is not that time.”
I knew of women, before the cities went dark, women who talked to men in this way. I was never one of those women and am ashamed to find these cooing sounds coming from between my own lips. But it works. Pluh nods enthusiastically, glad for my understanding.
“One will only lead to more,” he says. “We will be back where we started. If Lilibet leaves the other women will never accept it. Jorge was nothing. She? Orla, how did this happen? She is not nothing.”
“I know.” I say, waiting for him to look me in the eye. “I can persuade Lilibet to do what is right. I can fix this.”
He jerks his head up and stares at me.
I hold his gaze and nod. “You will have to do something for me.” He listens while I tell him of my new role in our tribe. A role that will not require running.
I bring Lilibet a cup of tea laced with black cohosh and a double dose of ergot. At first she refuses to drink it, so I say, “Lilibet, the baby needs fluid.”
Lilibet is not a stupid girl, but she is weak. I look at her sitting in front of me, and say, “You know I can force you to drink this. I will not hesitate.”
She does not answer or look at me, but she takes the tea. The cramps come quickly; Lilibet was not so far along. I tend to her. I do not comfort her. It is not my place.
For the first time since Lilibet gave it to me, I unearth the buried snake skeleton. It is just where I left it. The leaves it is wrapped in crumble when I disturb them, though the skeleton has held up well. I take it to Lilibet, thinking she will be pleased to have something, since she lost everything else. Lilibet holds it carefully and presses her finger against one of the fangs.
“You are lucky you aren’t dead too,” I say to her.
“If it happens again?” I gesture to her stomach, “You will get your wish. He’ll send you away. He never wanted to accept you into the tribe in the first place.”
Lilibet did not know this; her face shows it. I tell her she will either be eaten or lost out there. “If you are found by the strangers, they will tear you apart.”
She drops the skeleton to the ground and looks me in the eye. “You are not the most treacherous one,” she says, crushing the skeleton into the forest floor. “I left that girl by the river and I’d do it again. Jorge wanted to bring her. I wouldn’t let him. Don’t you forget that, Orla.”
When she is gone, I examine the bones. Her foot has bled onto them. I touch the blood to my lips, spit it out. I find one of the fangs and take it with me.
Pluh goes running into the cities and brings more and more children and girls back, an endless supply of recruits. He is not happy about the carrot garden I have started, but my skill with the women is a useful tool and he is now forced to recognize it. In time I will ask him for a child of my own — a daughter, an apprentice. Lilibet is learning to run. Her face is not so bright anymore, but none of our faces are.
When the lions start an uproar, it begins low and quiet and at first you think it might be your own stomach — you cannot tell where it comes from or if it is really there at all. Once they get going there is nothing but that sound: a fierce guttural vibration which rattles the very center of all things and rumbles off the trees, the water, the darkened buildings of the city in the distance. It booms off the sky itself. It is a beautiful and terrifying sound; a sound that says, I’m hungry and you are food. A sound to remind you of your place in the forest.