Ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves.
These words had Avi really worried. They had just come into his head from God knows where. It was just as if he had swallowed those words together with the bilberry leaf that had a little beetle stuck to it. There was a speck of light on the beetle’s back. Avi was so upset, in fact, that he even stopped chewing, straightened up, opened his eyes and with a kind of solemn horror in his voice uttered:
“Ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves.”
The voice seemed to belong not to Avi, but to someone completely different.
It was like there was someone standing behind Avi’s back.
He opened his eyes wide and looked around. Fortunately, there seemed to be no special meaning in the smooth swaying of the pine trees. There was no hint of anything out of the ordinary in the way in which the sun mimicked the movement of the forest. Even so, in the midst of the bilberry bushes those words did indeed sound as though a green mouth had opened, lips had stirred and something had been said, words that should never under any circumstances be spoken. At least, not when Avi’s sister was around. But right now there was no sign of her. Now and again she would suddenly emerge from the trees in the most unexpected places, as if from under the ground. To Avi, Alicia seemed to be digging subterranean passageways rather than gorging herself on berries.
Any minute now she’s going to jump out from under his feet with moss flying in all directions; the bilberry bushes are still shaking and that terrible phrase is still hanging in the air—it’s snagged on a spider’s web and trembling, like there’s still something that needs to be said, although Avi hasn’t the faintest idea what the continuation could be. Alicia will hurl herself at him, blocking out the gentle sun with her body, making him fall right on to the bilberries. She’ll begin to strangle him with her terrifying blue tentacle-like fingers. “They’re aw blue—aff o me, get them aff o me!” “Non! Ah willna!” And there are Alicia’s eyes pressed close up to his face with the red tinge like you get in photographs. He suddenly pictured to himself how Alicia’s ball pen had leaked in her pocket, the ink flooding her shorts and running down her legs. She shoved her hand into her shorts, retrieved the pen and her fingers were all blue, a really tenacious kind of blue. She maun heave her claes oot, the hale load o thaim, thare’s nae weys tae wash oot yon stain, thought Avi.
But it’s not his fault, it’s those sourish, mind-bending little berries that are to blame, those tiny wee spheres, those tablets that flood your head with all kinds of nonsense, that give you that tight feeling in your chest. Bilberries, bletherberries that befuddle the mind, babbleberries that give you a kick—a really hard kick. The beautiful green forest scales, the timber songs, play out like a kaleidoscope before his eyes. It’s hard tae breathe, yer haunds skeedaddle awa. Canna seem tae shake the bletherberries.
The bilberries were indeed very much like the tablets that were given to them in the Camp. It was easy to tell the difference between those tablets by their colors. The dark blue ones were given out after breakfast. The girls said that they were for the memory. Avi had his own thoughts on that.
Lassies ayeweys ken that wee bit mair,
Aye but they dinnae get tae drain oor quair!
Ye shoudnae listen tae them! Yon blue, awmaist black tablets mak ye feel bamboozle’d wi awthings ye hear an see. Aye right eneuch, each nicht i the Camp ye’d mynd o the day jist past wi bricht, nigglin nagglin particularity; it wis awfy hard tae sleep. Each muivement, each soond’s fixed i yer mynd: yon clatterin o spoons i the canteen, yon wey the flag crawls up the flagpole tae heiven, yon shairp crack whanever the baw’s hit o’er the stane Ping-Pong table that’s aye gravestane cauld. (That’s a trick that Avi never did learn, and now it looks as though he never will.) Unlikely tae be ony Ping-Pong action whaur thay’re aff tae.
In the Camp there were also green tablets—“vitamins”—and brown ones. These were the nippiest sweeties. For a long time Alicia resisted mentioning the rumor that was circulating among the girls about what these elongated capsules were for, but then finally she did admit that no one actually knew. Apart frae fact those brune tabules mak ye awfy keen oan buryin yirsel intae the groond. Tolik—the laddie wha’d pished himsel t’ither day—he’d done it. The troop leaders found him in the evening behind the kitchen up to his neck in the ground; someone had put the caps of two toothpaste tubes in his nostrils. It was decided not to tell the Camp Director about the incident, but everyone continued to be amazed for some time afterward by Tolik’s ability to dig himself in, and to do so in such a neat way, right up to the chin. After all, it would be difficult to find a creature more cack-handed, short-sighted, generally repulsive, and less fit to live than Tolik.
Avi screwed his face up as he recalled all this—there was this really sour taste in his mouth—and looked around. There were no fewer bilberries than there had been to begin with. Quite the reverse, in fact—they seemed to grow back instantly on the bushes that had already been stripped of their fruit. An endless patch of bilberry bushes, bushes that bear berries and can never be consumed. If it weren’t for the midges, he probably wouldn’t be able to remember where their car was.
Alicia and Avi probably resembled mosquitoes themselves. They stuffed these intoxicating little spheres into their mouths and kissed the juice off of the palms of their hands. They gobbled them up as if they had been stolen, as if they wanted to poison themselves with them. They shifted restlessly among the trees, coming closer together and then moving further apart, pressing their noses into the ground. It was a habit of theirs—always rushing around.
Ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves. In the Middle Ages, par exemple, naebuddy wud’ve been surprised wi biographical fact likes o yon, thought Avi to himself. Yon sortae thing happens, folk wid say. Weel, last winter ma aunty wis bit bi some big rat, folk wid say back in the day, an she got deid o the plague. Yon bubonic one, tae be precise. Whit aboot ma tittie, the wan wha got merrit tae yon humpybackit swineherd? An therr wis ma uncle; he went aff tae liberate the Tomb o’ Oor Lord, and naebody’s heard frae him foriver an iver agin. Mynd whit oor troop leader said tae us aw at line-up yestreen, that he was gonnae mak a real medieval hell fur us, cause Tolik hae’d pished his cot again. Whit the leader meant tae say wis that he’d tie them aw up likes o he’d done afore. As if yon sadist had ony clue as tae whit “medieval” meant. Whan folk had bairns back i the day, they reck’d tae be lucky if hauf thair offspring made it tae saxteen years o age. Avi wasn’t yet sixteen, but knew he would live to that age. He felt such power run through his whole body. Even if ye jist had a guid stretch, ye felt lik ye could hoist up the hale country an cairy it oan yir shouders. Nae matter whare tae. The troop leaders used tae say that it wis the Camp that gied us strength. And Avi believed them; nothing like that had ever occurred to him before. Sic a power: bilberries, pine trees, the sun, whitiver. Ye coud reach oot an touch awthings.
Funnily enough he didn’t feel at all hungry. Only that morning they’d woken up in the Camp, surrounded by the same old, same old wooden walls of their barrack block, and even managed to have breakfast in the canteen—milk, porridge, bread and butter, and the cheese that Alicia didn’t finish and gave to him. After breakfast they had to take their tablets. Today they didn’t have to go to the medical examination room and so they had a little bit more free time.
Whenever there was no session involving the examination room, they always went after breakfast to their special, secret place beneath the fir trees; they would meet by the loos, behind the wooden shacks where they stood right next to the Camp fence; there was a heap of chairs there, an old piano in which wee-sleekit-cowerin-timorous-beastie-mice were living and hackneyed hand-printed posters full of mistakes. Some old window frames had been left standing upright in the grass. There was someone living in between the panes of glass; when the sun shone you could occasionally see weird reflections on the glass—reflections, perhaps, of people or shadows, and behind their backs, in the very depths of the glass, you could make out a gleaming, brightly lit corridor full of languid, fishlike movement. The wonderful three-dimensional quality of this glass world was striking; on one occasion, Alicia confessed that whenever she was there she wanted simply to step into the glass because she knew that she could. “Non, dinna dae that,” Avi begged his sister, and she gave him a dour look, the kind of look a nun would give.
Over there by the fence the ground was strewn with light grey pine cones and motionless pine needles; they looked as if sugar had been scattered over them. Alicia and Avi used to walk up and down on them, listening to the pleasant rustling sound under their feet. Often they’d lie beneath the trees discoursing on this and that; the one thing they never discussed was the Camp. Just beyond the pine trees was the metal wire-mesh fence, and on the other side of the fence was the forest. The dappled light on the forest made it look just as enmeshed, as though it had walked into a trap.
This morning, all of a sudden, there was someone calling out to them from behind the fir trees. This had happened before. Alicia and Avi would saunter up to the fence quite unafraid—it was unlikely that anyone could contrive to get into the Camp through the wire. The Camp had a proper entrance: a gateway painted yellow. There was a wheel hanging over the gate with a lot of shiny metal spurs sticking out of it. Somehow, the two of them knew that these shiny spurs were there to protect them; the wheel was in some way connected with the mesh fence and the Camp perimeter which they had not yet had time to wander all around. That’s why they felt no fear now when someone called to them by name.
True, Alicia did once say that going right up close to the fence was dangerous—what if people on the other side had long hooks to grab hold of a person and drag them out of the Camp into the forest? Just after they had first been brought here to the Camp, an old man had started talking to them across the fence. He offered them nuts to eat and even shoved some through the wire mesh. They said nothing but he kept blathering without stopping, and even crying at the same time. Back then they still didn’t know the Lingo very well. Alicia went up to the fence, and Avi came tramping unwillingly after her. It was then that the man turned his back on them. One hand he used to push nuts through the mesh and the other he shoved into his pocket: he looked really odd standing there like that. The scene seemed to last for ages, and the nuts fell on to the pine needles. How many nuts did that guy have with him, thousands, millions? The words flew into the forest, turning into sighs and groans. “Yon nuts are pushionous,” said Alicia when the man finally walked off. You could tell how insulted he was by the way his back disappeared behind the trees. “We durna eat thaim.” And then they walked off.
However, what they saw more often on the other side of the fence were local yokels from the villages nearby; they did all kinds of daft things to attract the children’s attention. “Howzit gaun oan the ither side, heidcases?” they shouted, and their voices would grow hoarser and hoarser. “Bawheids, the load o yese. Ur theys cuirin’ yese? Hud yer jags yet? Did they gie yer harnpans a right guid gardyloo?” Sometimes one of these yobbos would whip his cock out of his trews and wave it merrily at them, but it was only the boldest souls who did this; most of them simply bent over and mooned them with their suntanned arses. Alicia smiled without turning her eyes away. Avi, on the other hand, desperately wanted to throw something over the fence, and throw it so as to hit one of them and make blood flow. Avi loved it when blood flowed.
But what happened this morning was completely, utterly different.
This morning, there really was someone calling to them by name from the other side of the wire fence. By their real names.
They heard a hushed voice call out, “Alicia! Hey, Avi!”
They looked at one another. It was an insistent, commanding voice that was calling them, quiet yet very familiar. Avi took his sister by the hand, and they raced headlong into the fir trees toward the wire. However, they stopped several meters before they reached the fence. After all, familiar voices could have poles with hooks on the ends.
It was Faither. He was standing on the other side and calling them. His face lit up as they came nearer, just as though the forest had slowly parted its crown of treetops. A young woman with short yellow hair
Yellow hair, beyond compare,
Comes trinklin’ doon her swanlike neck,
An’ her twa eyes like stars in skies,
Would keep a sinking ship frae wreck
was standing next to Faither; she was observing the children with such unfeigned interest that Avi tried not to look in her direction.
“Come awa here, closer,” whispered Faither, and they took a few more steps toward the wire. Faither pushed his fingers through the mesh. The scene was really rather repulsive: his fingers were wiggling around, but they were in the Camp, whereas Faither was There, on the outside.
“He’s wantin us tae gang o’er there tae see him,” said Avi.
“Ye canna come here awa,” Alicia begged Faither, and kept looking cautiously around her. Faither had never seen her like this. “We maun be oan the Parade Groond the noo. Thare’s a competeetion the day an we’ve practised!”
Surprisingly, Avi had forgotten all about that. There was the song that they had been learning. It had these cunning words scattered right through it that were bound to trip you up, however many times you tried to get them right.
As I was walking up the street,
A barefit maid I chanc’d tae meet;
But O the road was very hard
For that fair maiden’s tender feet.
“Haud yer wheesht!” said Faither hastily, pressing his fingers around the wire. “We’re gonnae dae aw things swiftly, wi silence, an yese huv tae harkit me. This here’s Kenzy, she . . .” He looked—rather pathetically, the children thought—at her.
“She’s oor helpie. Nou jist hang oan . . .”
This Kenzy woman—whoever she was—suddenly drew a huge pair of shears out of her rucksack. They were just like the shears that hung on the wall of the medical examination room with their blades gaping open. The Doctor never took them down, but for some reason Avi’s eyes were always drawn to them whenever he was in the room. Kenzy handed the shears to Faither, and Faither let them fall to the ground; knelt down and then stood up; in his hands the shears sprang to life and started clicking away. He was in a tearing hurry. For as long as they could remember, he had always been in a hurry. Faither seized the shears with both hands and began to cut the wire.
It was harder than he thought. Faither was puffing and panting, wiping the sweat from his forehead. It was funny how his upper lip was dancing beneath his nose. From time to time he looked pleadingly first at Avi and then at Alicia, as if asking them for help, but they just stood there watching him suffer. Meanwhile Kenzy
Mally’s meek, Mally’s sweet,
Mally’s modest and discreet;
Mally’s rare, Mally’s fair,
Mally’s every way complete
was observing the children closely, now and again looking around nervously. Avi also had the feeling that someone would come running up because of the noise. One of the troop leaders. Avi tried not to think of how things would end. Blood would flow, perhaps.
“Whit ye doin doon therr?” Trying to drive the midges away made Kenzy finally lose her patience. “Whit ur ye doin? Dinnae tell me ye’ve forgot . . .”
“Jist a wee minuit mair,” Faither groaned. The shears bounced around, refusing to stay where he wanted them. “Jist a second. Thare yese go!”
Alicia looked at Avi. Avi looked at Alicia.
They sighed, took each other by the hand and started walking slowly toward Faither. The wire of the fence got snagged on Avi’s T-shirt, but Kenzy carefully freed him; she pulled it out like it was a splinter.
“It’s aw fur aw the best,” said Faither. “Ah luve the baith o yese. Nou we’ll n’er . . .”
And, still wielding the shears, he burst into tears. Kenzy had to snatch them out of his hands. “Less o yon panic i yer breastie,” she said and grabbed the rucksack. “Therr’s nae time! Leave it tae the morn!”
They set off running down the hill, first Kenzy, then Faither behind her, holding Avi by the hand, and Alicia in the rear. The forest was gradually thinning out, and from somewhere they could hear the sound of a tractor working in the fields. Jumping across streams and stumbling over tree stumps, they reached the bottom of the hill and emerged on to a road. There stood the car with its snout buried in the bushes. The sun had heated the car up; inside was a fat gadfly desperately beating itself against the windows in a struggle to get out. It took no notice when they opened the car doors. They sped off along the forest road with the fly hurtling around inside the car like a mad thing. The bumpy ride over ruts and broken branches could not shake off the stuffiness inside or the pine needles on the windscreen.
Avi and Alicia sat on the back seat, looking at the forest jumping up and down on the other side of the windows. At one moment, Avi thought he spotted the wire fence somewhere out there among the trees. The Camp was big—and now there was a little hole in it; nevertheless, one big enough to let a child out. It was a hole that could cause all kinds of things to happen inside the Camp.
tittie: sister (there is a phrase that denotes the close relationship between brother and sister: “tittie-billie”)
heave out: dispose of
ye’d mynd o: you would remember
durna: dare not
bawheids: fools, idiots
harnpans: brainpans, skulls
the day: today
haud yer wheesht: keep quiet
From Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič. Copyright © 2014 by Alhierd Bacharevič. Translation © 2020 by Jim Dingley & Petra Reid. Reprinted by arrangement with New Directions. All rights reserved.