She knocked dirt off the root. Raising it to face-level, she smelled it. It seemed to be good. Hungrily, she bit into it. Instantly, she spat out the woody granules with their acidic taste. She tossed the remainder beside the other bad ones, then dug up the next root.
A grunt some yards away made her look up. One of her companions was filling his mouth with long stringy orange plants. Edible? She and some of the others moved closer. Another reached out for some of the plants. The first one growled. The second growled back and snatched the plants and stuffed them into his mouth. She and the others watched their companions. A few minutes went by and the first two didn’t keel over. Within moments, the small patch of sickly-looking orange plants were gone. They spread out to look for more.
She looked up and saw the sky turning colors. There was no pain as yet, so she moved to a hill and climbed up. Silently, she watched the sky, ignoring the hunger in her belly and soul. A tear crept down her face. She reached a hand up to touch it, looking at the wetness and licking her finger. Fleeting images flashed though her mind. Another sunset. A child. A man. A picture with the man and child and another figure she thought was herself. Another tear splashed on the ground, but she didn’t notice as she doubled over in pain, her head throbbing. The pain threatened to split her in two -- a sharp, cutting pain radiating from her right forehead to the base of her skull. It was too much pain. She lifted her head and cried out -- a long, drawn-out noise. Below her, the companions howled back as her pain awakened their own.
... ... ...
They moved on. There was no food here. Within a day, another companion had died from bad water. Her screams awakened the pain within the others and the trees near the brown pool were sacrificed as they physically pounded out their pain. Later, they found a small bush that had some brown berries on it. They started to eat, but stomach pains stopped them. What little food they’d previously found joined the berries on the ground. The group wandered on.
A rabbit hopping aimlessly seemed not to notice them. It was quickly devoured by the three strongest while the others looked hungrily on. The bones were their share, and they cracked them as they walked.
... ... ...
A field of green plants caught their attention. The group exchanged glances, green? They moved down to investigate. It was corn. Rows of corn plants. Some had white fungus growing on the stalks. Those they avoided. The others they ate. For the first time in a long time, there was no squabbling for the food, no fights, not even pain. They ate.
She looked up from the yellow kernels. Voices. She moved to investigate, trading glances with another who also left the corn. They moved to cover and peered out. Humans. Normal humans, coming to eat their corn. She sighed, it had been so long since they’d had food to eat... She didn’t have to look at her companion, she knew they would fight to keep this plenty. The voices changed to silence, then to anger as they saw the field. She winced at the strident tones. The voices again became silent as the humans moved apart, holding things. Guns. The word floated through her head, only vaguely recognized. Weapons. She looked at the weapons curiously, then shook her head and silently crept to a corn section where the humans might enter. She found two companions already at her chosen spot.
... ... ...
Pain. Throbbing, constant pain. She hurt. Her leg hurt badly. She wanted to punch out, to strike out, but she couldn’t move. Couldn’t move? She opened her eyes. She had been bound. There was rope around her legs and arms. She strained against it, but what yielded was her flesh as blood dripped around her wrists. Frantic now, scared with a fear she could not define, she struggled. Finally, she lay still, panting in exhaustion.
"Jesus, Mike. That’s one determined bitch."
"Reminds me of my ex-wife."
"Why the hell did you bring her back to us anyway?"
"What was I suppose to do, kill her?"
"Her? It’s a mutant. Not a human. Of course you should have killed it. With the corn they destroyed, they might well have killed us. Or do you want to see your family starve through the winter?"
The sounds drifted over her, empty of meaning. Here and there a word tugged her memory, flashed a picture for her mind, but each time the pain seared through her head. It was easier not to try to understand. She watched the figures as they moved around. They tossed ears of corn in burlap sacks. One human dragged the bodies of her companions to a hole in the ground. Not all of her group was there, but most. She watched. A human lowed a wooden container from the trees and others gathered around as they talked. After some time, they shook some wriggling larvae out into a sack, then pulled the container back up in the tree.
A human knelt in front of her, keeping a prudent distance. She regarded him, but made no move. He reached cautiously for her wrists, tied behind her back. She jerked back. He regarded her, patiently. They waited for some time, then he reached again. She didn’t move this time. Without loosening the ties, she felt it as he wrapped clean cloth around her wrists where she’d bled. Then he checked her leg. For the first time, she noticed her leg was already wrapped from ankle to knee, but blood discolored the wrappings. An idea passed though her mind, and her forehead wrinkled as she tried to capture it. Kindness? The diagonal pain slashed across her neurons and she cried, flopping backwards as she instinctively tried to raise her hands and couldn’t. The pain lasted a long time.
... ... ...
"Mike, you can’t keep it around."
"I know, I know."
"Well, what the hell are you planning to do about it?"
A long sigh. "I don’t suppose I can let her go?"
"Jesus, Mike. What the hell do you think? With careful rationing, there’s barely enough food for us, and look what they destroyed just stuffing their mouths with one meal. If you let her go, she’ll be back. And there goes the rest of it."
"I’ll think of something."
... ... ...
A man wandered into her field of vision. His mouth moved with sounds.
"What’s up with the Mutant?"
"Had to tie it up like that -- it nearly killed Mike when he tried to fix it up, and it broke the wrist ties thrashing about. If it doesn’t move, it doesn’t get leverage to get loose."
"We should just kill it now."
A second man wandered over and looked at her. He squatted down and prodded her shoulder. She tried to flinch away, but her arms and legs were tightly tied to something beneath her. The pain was a constant throb, deep and unremitting.
"Mike’s going to dump it over the cliff. Leave its hands tied, and it can’t climb back up. There’s a river to follow that doesn’t go anywhere near the settlements, and he thinks it’ll go that way. He’s checking the cables now."
The man walked away, leaving the first one staring at her. He drew a knife and lowered the flat side onto her throat. The cool metal pierced through the pain and something like reason flashed in her eyes. She knew he was going to kill her, and though she couldn’t think for what reason, she knew she didn’t want to die. She tried to struggle, and the metal slid along her throat. Blood trickled.
"Hey. Check it out, Emir. It’s frightened."
"What the... Put that knife away, George! Sally will slaughter us if she finds out."
The man grinned, looking into her eyes, not moving the knife an inch.
"I’ve got a better idea than killing it. Comn’on E -- when was the last time you saw a frightened Mutant? I remember what they looked like when they killed my Valerie, and it wasn’t fright then."
The voice was hard, as cold as the knife.
... ... ...
She crawled the few feet to the water. Her body felt on fire. Her leg throbbed, her wrists still bled, the middle of her body was a raw sore. And she was thirsty. Sticking her head in, she slurped up the cool liquid, ignoring the somewhat bitter taste. She tried to sit up, but her hands were still tied. After thrashing about, she finally managed to get upright. She looked back at the cliff, then down the river. Water was life. There would be food somewhere down there.
... ... ...
The new group wasn’t the same as the companions she’d spent so much time with, but they accepted her. They accepted her only reluctantly, but she was the best food-gatherer among them, and they let her stay on the outskirts. Not that she wanted to be any closer. Her experiences had left her solitary. She needed the protection of a group, but somehow she didn’t feel like staying anywhere near them. She still watched the sunsets at night, and the pain still came, but she ignored it more, reaching out for that feeling that eluded her.
She’d been noticing a change in her physiology the last month or so. It was almost... familiar. Her balance was shifting, her belly growing larger, her feet swelling. Sometimes she wondered, but then the more pressing need for food and survival would take demand. One day she found herself humming and she paused, forehead wrinkling in an effort to capture something as elusive as a thought. Sounds floated by her memory, "If that diamond ring turns brass, Momma’s going to buy you a looking glass." Words? What was... A picture developed -- a little one held in her arms as she rocked it back and forth. Pain flashed across the memory and she moaned, dropping to her knees, but fighting to hold onto the thought, a baby -- I’m going to have a baby. Tears rolled down her face as pain swelled to a crescendo in her head, driving out every possible semblance of reason, but she tried desperately to hold onto the feeling she’d had when holding the baby. Happiness.