FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Big Empty: Chapter Six

Effrim, Misty, and Duronda are in the hands of out-district raiders. They like Effrim's singing, and have him play his banjo and sing after supper. After that, they take the banjo away and send him to the "guest tent," where he, the girls, and handful of other kids are guarded by two women (one named Corabel) and quite a few caged jabberjays. Effrim sings "The Meadow Song," and everyone goes to sleep.

Chapter Six
My first full day at the camp starts with the thunder of horses' hooves as the raiders ride by the tent. There are still some behind to guard, but most of them, including Trajan and Verus, have headed out on some job or other. "Supply caravan," Cooky tells me grumpily when I show up to help him with lunch. Duronda's shoveling out the horse paddock and Misty's doing an inventory. Spicer is off with the raiders. There are four other kids from the tent, all doing one task or another for the morning.

"Verus got wind of trucks coming up last night and they set right out at sunrise," Cooky says. "They'll bring back something in cans." He doesn't look pleased with this. In fact, he looks somewhat disgusted at the prospect, the way my Purdy cousins sometimes look when we sort through rations at the Community Home. Uncle Chick always made the best meals in District Twelve.

"Were you always a cook?" I ask Cooky.

"Chef," he says. "I used to have a restaurant in the Capitol."

"You're from the Capitol?"

"Born and raised, rot the place."

"You don't talk like you're from the Capitol."

He snorts. "Not everyone in the Capitol talks like they train the snooty ones to. Most of us don't have time to learn to talk through our noses."

"Trajan was snooty?"

Cooky looks around himself carefully. "Don't you go telling tales out of school on it, but yeah. Trajan was rich. That's why he's still got rich connections back there to do business with." He considers this. "Not rich enough to get him out of it when he shot his father, though. Apparently, he was in a hurry for his inheritance. Instead, he got an all-expenses paid pass out of the city for good."

I frown. "They just… exile people who do murders?"

"Most people, that's a death sentence. It's a pretty good threat. There's coyotes and wolves and mountain lions not two miles beyond the city limits. But Trajan just laughs about it." Cooky starts sharpening a knife. "I met him when he was still pretty new to it -- maybe three months after his sentence. He'd managed to get out past District One. The old leader, whose name escapes me, figured Trajan was easy prey. But it turned out Trajan had already stolen one of our guns. Waited for him to come up close and…" He mimes pulling a trigger.

I consider asking him how he happened to get exiled out here, but there's something in the glint of his eyes that tells me I don't really want to know. I get to work on the fire.

After lunch, we have a little bit of time to ourselves, as long as we stay where the guards can see us. They form a loose perimeter around the camp, but they have long range goggles, and long range rifles.

Most of the adults remaining in camp and not on guard entertain themselves by playing games. Some look like gambling. Some are pretty innocent, surprisingly -- if I'm not mistaken, Corabel and a woman who barely says anything at all are sitting on either side of a stump and playing tic-tac-toe. I stay at the campfire site with the girls, and the other four kids stay with us. We take the opportunity to find out who they are.

The pig-tailed girl is named Claire. The raiders picked her up in District Seven, wandering around some burned out woods after a Capitol attack. She made her dolly from scraps. It's named Evangelina. There's a girl from the Capitol. She's my age. Her parents were liaisons in District Two when the rebellion began. "They were thrown in the quarry," she says bitterly. "The rebels threw rocks at them until they died." She glares at us. Her name is Juliana.

The red-headed boy is Reilly Hagarty, from District Four. He's ten. He looks after Claire. His parents were killed in what he calls the Battle of the Beaches. "There were corpses all over the sand," he says, then shudders. "And I'm never eating another lobster." He doesn't explain this.

The last of the kids is a silent little boy of about eight, who they all call "Tongue-Tie." He came into the camp about two weeks ago, picked up in the middle of nowhere. Juliana thinks his parents must have been trying to get away from the war. There was an overturned wagon, anyway, and a couple of bodies. They were somewhere between Twelve and Thirteen.

"You guys are from Twelve, right?" she asks, looking at Misty and Duronda and me. "Is he one of yours? He doesn't talk."

"Don't think so," Misty says. "We notice if people go missing. There aren't that many of us."

No one else seems to know where he could really be from, and he doesn't offer information. We finish up our conversation, and split up. Reilly and Claire go off to feed chickens. Juliana disappears back into the tent. Tongue-tie just sits and pokes at the fire. Misty tries to engage him, but he finally gets up and walks away, heading over toward the horse paddock.

"Give it up," Duronda says. "He'll talk if he wants to. Maybe we should talk."

Misty and I agree. We go over to the statue of the cloaked man, as far from the jabberjays and the guards as we can get without leaving their sight.

Misty is still dressed in what she wore last night, and keeps shifting around uncomfortably, and pulling the skirt of the dress down over her scabbed knees. Duronda is in a new outfit, but it's as bad. There's a tight little top that her bosoms are trying to get out of, and very tight jeans. She's also wearing knee-high boots with heels. She looks like she's in a movie about pirates. And, though I'd never say it out loud, she looks like she kind of enjoys strutting around like this. She's got her chest pushed out and she keeps tossing her hair.

I tell them about talking to Spicer yesterday.

"Don't trust him," Duronda says when I finish.

"He's one of us!"

"He's been on their dole for a long time. Don't trust him."

"You don't trust anyone," Misty says impatiently.

"I trust them after I know them, if they deserve it. And it's not just because they happen to be in the same sticky place I am. That doesn't mean anything."

It's plain sense and Misty recognizes it, though she doesn't much like it. I don't much like it, either. But in my mind's eye, I see Spicer walking out of the tent yesterday afternoon without so much as a "see you later," and I think Duronda's right. He's been here a long time.

"So here's how I see it," Misty says after it's sunk in. "If we stick with them for a little while, they can move us faster than we could go on foot -- "

"You want to stay?" I ask.

"Not very long!" She looks around. "But they're going our way. They look for convoys and battles and camps -- not a bad way to start looking for the army."

I shake my head. "Spicer said they move faster on the plains. We have to get out of here before we get out of the mountains. He said they'll… that you two…"

"They can get a good price for me in the Capitol," Misty says. "That's what Corabel says, anyway. I'm not in any rush to find out how good a price."

"Me, either." Duronda sits down on a crate. "So, maybe we should go while the camp's half empty."

Misty shakes her head. "Bad plan. This is their regular route. They know the area better than we do. We're still trapped against the river to the south. It wouldn't take them a day to find us, and I don't want to think about what would happen after."

"It's going to be the same the whole way," I point out. "That it's their route, I mean. I don't know about the two of you, but I don't know anywhere other than the woods outside Twelve."

"That's why we have to wait for the right time. When we can all get out, and maybe get at least Claire and Tongue-Tie to someplace sort of safer -- Reilly and Juliana, too, if they want. Someplace where there are some other grown-ups around, with guns, in case they come after us. Then we can get away and --"

"Wait," Duronda says. "You want to take the others with us?"

Misty raises her eyebrows. She doesn't need to say anything. I hadn't thought about it, and Duronda is obviously irritated, but none of us suggests that we leave the others in the "guest tent" for the raiders to dispose of as they see fit.

Duronda grimaces, then nods. "Fine. Okay. As long as you're already out there in fairy tale land, do you have a plan yet?"

"Information gathering, for now. Find out who they're doing business with. Find out who's traveling close by. If we can get the other kids to the rebels -- or even to regular Capitol troops instead of… whoever Trajan's doing business with -- then I'll feel okay about that. So let's see who they raided today. Effrim, you ask Spicer what happened. Duronda, you're good at getting things together to leave -- you had less time than I did to get going, and you brought better stuff. So you figure out how to get our stuff out of here."

"And some ammo for the gun," Duronda says.

"And my banjo."

"You're on your own with that."

Misty shrugs. "They were drunk and relaxed last night while you were playing. We'll get away while you've still got it in your hands if we can."

That's as far as our conversation gets. Corabel apparently decides we've been talking too long, and herds us back to the guest tent to "straighten up" the sleep area.

She goes to the jabberjay cage by the door and claps her hands three times. She points at me.

The bird leans forward. Its beak moves a little bit, but not all that much, when suddenly, the world is full of the sound of my voice, singing the Meadow Song.

At least I guess it's me. I don't sound the same as I sound in my head. I thought my voice was starting to drop, like Dad's, but when I sing, it's only a little bit lower than the girls' voices, at least according to the jabberjay. Maybe a low alto. High tenor, at best. Still, I know it's me. I can hear my phrasing, and the full, rounded sounds of District Twelve. The girls don't look like the voice is surprising to them, either, so I guess it must be what I really sound like.

It's actually kind of pleasant, once I get used to it.

Corabel sniffs, obviously annoyed at the lack of useful information, then gives her hands one more sharp clap. My voice is cut off.

"That can't be how the Capitol does it," Misty says.

Corabel shrugs. "Probably not. Can't figure out how they get them to say back the kinds of things the soldiers want. It's not like the birds have any brains worth speaking of. I have to point. But I've trained these well enough to do what I need them to. They'll say back the last thing they heard from the people who I point at."

"I wonder if you could do a duet with yourself." Misty grins at me. "Can I try it, Corabel?"

She narrows her eyes, but says, "Suit yourself."

Misty claps her hands three times, and the jabberjay starts singing again. She looks at me. "Can you pick up a harmony?"

"It's been a while," I say. I don't try lyrics, which will just confuse me, but I find a complementary tone to what's coming from the bird, and start to hum under it.

Misty laughs, delighted.

Corabel gives a single clap, and the bird falls silent. My last hum hangs in the air.

"You should teach them something they can do as a round," Duronda suggests. "I bet they'd think it's funny at the campfire."

There's something in her voice that seems odd, and I'm guessing she's working out strategies. (Misty, on the other hand, seems to just be genuinely happy.) I look at Corabel. "You think they'd let me?" I ask.

She stares at us dully for a while, then says, "Knock yourself out."

If either of the girls is developing an escape plan around trained jabberjays, it remains a mystery to me as the afternoon goes on. Misty declares four of the ten birds to be absolute prodigies, and we set out to teach them one of the simple songs we know from school. I want to do "The Hanging Tree," which has been a rebel anthem since the Thirteen Martyrs were hanged in the Capitol. It turns into a really simple round, but Corabel roughly tells us that if we're going to waste our time, it may as well be on something entertaining, instead of teaching them a dirge.

Most miners' songs have a sad edge to them -- untrue lovers, children who can't afford shoes, dead lovers, mine accidents, and imperiled lovers, mostly. Sometimes there's a dead dog or a dying horse. Aunt Daisy used to sing one about a boy who jumped off a bridge. We finally settle for one about a bridge falling down, which has an upbeat sound to it. I sing it through for them, then start again. Misty claps to the first bird after the first few bars, and it starts in. It works pretty well as a round.

Late in the afternoon, Cooky comes to get me to help get the fires going. He gets a kick out of the birds. "That would have gone over at my place. Always looking for novelty. You should show it to Verus. Bet he'll like it."

The raiders return from their business as the sun sets. They're filthy, and quite a few are splashed with blood. Some have the stuff on their hands. They've brought canned foods and sweets, but they've also shot a deer. This time, Cooky lets me help with the butchering, while he tells Verus about the birds. I'm allowed to have them do their trick. The raiders think it's the funniest thing they've ever seen, and tell me to teach them a better song for tomorrow. I'm excused from my duties with Cooky to work with the birds. An old raider who goes by the name Buffalo Skinner, or just Skinner (I have no idea where he's from originally, or what his real name is) catches me on the way to the tent and teaches me a dirty song about a girl named Lenore the Whore, who apparently knows the tricks of her trade, given how many verses he tries to sing. I tell him I'm not sure the jabberjays can learn all of that, so he says just to do the really dirty ones. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be allowed to sing this at the Community Home. Or at my own home, for that matter. On the other hand, I'd be pretty popular if I sang it back behind the school.

Once Skinner lets me go, I go back to the guest tent, which is fully guarded. They have all of us sorting through the day's haul. Aside from the food, they've pulled in boxes of clothes, mostly casual army uniforms. There are fresh boots and clean tee shirts, and I'm given a few changes of clothes. The girls are kept tarted up, but Corabel finds some heavy bras for them, which she says will make it easier when we're riding. "Army's close by," Duronda mutters unnecessarily.

Spicer is quiet and grim. He doesn't take any of the clothes. "I shot someone," he says when I ask what's wrong. "Had to. He was pointing a gun at me, and I… had to."

"Was it the first time?" I ask him.

He nods.

"Was it hard?"

"No." He frowns and shakes his head, looking down at a curl of dust on the tent floor. "It wasn't. It was easy. Is it supposed to be easy?"

He goes back to his far off corner of the floor and pulls an old blanket over himself. I consider going over, but Corabel puts me to work with Reilly, making sure that everything they stole has all its buttons and fasteners, and checking through the pockets for valuables. Reilly finds a wedding band. I don't find anything.

I sing everyone to sleep again. Claire comes over and sleeps between me and Duronda.

In the morning, there's no time for talking. The raiders have decided to pack up "Camp Slouch," as they call it jokingly, referring to "the old ghoul in the cape out front."

There are four wagons, all of them narrow enough not to be blocked by the tree growth along the greenway. Tents are pulled down and tied up, the paddock is deconstructed and its stakes bound together for transport. Cooky gets his supplies and canned goods together, and I help him stow the venison in heavy salt.

They're not fool enough to put all of the captives in the same wagon -- I'm not a great strategist, but even I had a brief, wild daydream of shoving off the driver and just turning the wagon in another direction -- and I find myself stashed with Tongue-Tie and Juliana while the raiders do the last of their preparations. My four jabberjays are in with us, so we can't exactly talk. I work with them on the Lenore song, much to Juliana's annoyance. It's just after noon when the caravan pulls out. Cooky is driving our wagon and Corabel is up there with her gun. I don't know who's on the other wagons; they've all got rounded canvas covers, and I can't see more than the little bit of the sky that shows through the back. Most of the raiders ride alongside on horseback.

Spicer's right that they don't travel very quickly through the mountains. Twice the first day, we have to stop because there are obstacles even on the greenway that are too big for the wagons. Once, I'm pulled out of the back to help clear a deadfall and put the good dry wood in the wagon. Branches press against me the rest of the way to our night camp. Tongue-Tie shifts around uncomfortably and sucks his thumb. Juliana moves across the wagon. I get her talking about her home.

"We had everything," she says. "Daddy was friends with everyone. I had a swimming pool, and a little dog. And a nanny. I don't know what happened to my nanny."

"What's a nanny?" I ask.

"Someone who takes care of you."

"Don't your parents do that?"

"My parents were very busy," she says. "Doing real work, not just rabble-rousing like yours."

"What do you know about mine?"

"District traitors. That's all I need to know."

She doesn't talk anymore. I want to be angry with her, but I can't even imagine what it was like, watching her parents be killed. I wonder how people got whipped up like that so quickly. It took years before the Ridgies in Twelve could even be worked up to break shop windows.

I don't think we killed our Capitol liaisons.

I hope we didn't.

We finally come to a stop just before dark. We're in a kind of anonymous clearing, and we set up the tents and the campfire without much fuss. I go up and sing, and get the birds going on about Lenore. The men consider it an even bigger triumph than last night's sing-along. Skinner is clapped on the back for teaching me that one, and I end up stuck listening to song requests from the others until very late. They finally agree that I should teach the birds a song about a man who fell asleep naked and had a visit from three pretty girls.

Duronda and Misty are asleep by the time I get to the tent, and Spicer doesn't want to talk. I end up joking with Reilly a little bit about the songs. He offers to teach me one that the sailors in Four sing, though he imagines his mother's ghost will come and wash his mouth out for it.

We pack up in the morning. Duronda is angry at Misty, and Misty is annoyed with Duronda. I assume it's because there's still no escape plan in place, because Misty hisses, "We're moving, all right?"

I ride with Duronda in the second wagon this time. She's supposed to be sewing seams on some of Trajan's clothes, but the wagon keeps jerking around.

"Hey!" she yells at the driver. "Jitter me again, and Trajan's going to be starting a new fashion trend."

A woman -- the almost silent one -- looks inside, then says, "You be careful, then."

"You gave me dull scissors, and you're bouncing me around. Trajan's going to be going around with his balls out if I get another bump."

"Learn to balance better." The woman turns away.

Duronda grips her dull scissors tighter and raises them, then thinks better of it. She looks at me, then at the jabberjays, and keeps her mouth shut the rest of the way.

Just before we stop for the night, we hit what feels like a boulder, and she's tossed across the wagon. I hear the trousers that she's working on tear.

"Great," she mutters.

I figure that no one could blame her for that, but when she hands the mending to Trajan, he notices it right away. "You are a clumsy idiot," he says.

"Your boy at the reins kept bouncing me around. Take it out on him." Duronda turns her back.

Trajan grabs her and, before I can even react, throws her to the ground. "That boy's been with me a good long time. You, on the other hand, are no one and nothing. You get those fixed, or so help me, you're going to get very familiar with anything that's hanging out of my trousers."

"I'll just cut off anything that's hanging out."

Trajan picks her up and tosses her again, raising his hand.

"Hey!" I yell.

He looks over his shoulder at me. "You want to add something? Sing a verse for us, maybe?"

"Leave her alone."

Verus comes over. "We can replace your pants," he tells Trajan. "We can't replace anything you're thinking about tearing on her."

"Fine," Trajan says. "But she better learn to keep a civil tongue in her head." He looks at me. "You get to the fire and set up. Everyone's in a bad state of mind with this damnable road. You want to get us to a better place before someone does something he'll regret."

I follow Cooky to where he's setting up the campfire. He's already retrieved my banjo from the supplies. I get a glimpse of Misty climbing out of a wagon and going to Duronda's side, but I can't see it very clearly.

It's hard to keep track of anything while I'm singing, but I do see both of the girls sitting with the other kids. Juliana has even dropped her hostility to "district traitors," and is clearly guarding Duronda.

We stay in this spot an extra day, because the raiders have spotted an army camp. They send a small party to loot the foot lockers, and return with a few trinkets, none of them worth much, but there's a long meeting among the leaders before supper. The next day, a couple of the younger ones are sent off with some of the goods (luckily, not with any of the captives) and orders to deal with a quartermaster from District Nine.

We pack up and move along.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.