By Jennifer Turney
2018 Winner: Young Adult
Merim and Janus clawed through another mound of soft, wet moss, the earthy scent causing each of them to sneeze in turn. She, wearing the last small pair of gloves and he, shouldering the bag and insisting she move faster at their task. It wasn’t often that they found a pocket of such fresh, lush greenery, deep in the thick and mountainous Asian landscape. They were eager to collect it before someone else came to claim it, not that the nomads ran into strangers often. It also wasn’t often that Merim and Janus were able to work together companionably.
Merim paused a moment, raking her fingers up through her hair, brushing the wet strands from her forehead. She could remember the last time she’d cut it; a blind hack-job without a mirror. Her hairbrush had broken and she decided the best choice was to go shorter. She hadn’t had to tease burrs from her scalp since. It had grown back darker and now reached the length where it could almost tuck behind her ears, the humidity helping it stick.
They had a dozen uses for the moss, which had become harder and harder to find as the climate changed, frying the edges of the ancient conifer forests and drying the bamboo poles to a state so crisp that the wind knocking them together made them split and shatter with a sound that echoed through the valleys below the hills. Moss made a great pillow; it was therapeutic under tired feet. A scrap tucked up under your hat was refreshing, if a bit odious, against the hot daytime temperatures. Not least of those was bedding: how wonderful it would be to curl up on a soft bed for once. The thought made them work even harder. It had been many months of sleeping on the ground for the pair, and even with most of their youthful years still ahead of them, they were eager for a bit of comfort. The rest of the group was well past it and complained every morning about the hard earth with it’s inconsiderate roots and unforgiving rocks, as if everyone wasn’t sleeping on the same. Merim hoped this luxury might even buy her a decent sized piece of meat at mealtime tonight. She’d seen their self-proclaimed leader, Phaedon, skinning what he said was a hare. Hare, however, didn’t have long tails or bodies lean and lengthy as this animal had; or canine teeth as far as Merim could remember. Of course, with the strange evolutions that so many species had undergone, perhaps the hare had been forced to adapt to eating more than vegetation on the ground and had developed a taste for animals smaller than itself.
Merim shuddered and swallowed the extra saliva that threatened to flood her cheeks before she saw her lunch for a second time. Meat was meat, she told herself. She wasn’t getting a fair share at the table, she knew that. She had to take what she could get even if it meant sucking the marrow from bones that had been licked clean by her traveling companions. Protein was protein and survival required that.
Every night she counted the stars before falling asleep surrounded by the snores of the camp, naming them for people she’d known and wishes or dreams she’d had for her life and reminded herself that she had to survive. As revolting as the methods might be, there had to be something better somewhere. She just had to get to the somewhere. She was determined to.
Her thoughts were interrupted as a hard piece of bark collided with her arm, leaving a minor scratch. She looked up to see Janus adjusting the load on his back.
“Quit day dreamin’, girly. We gotta get this back to the rest so’s you can start dinner.”
So much for friendly, she thought. Though for Janus, it may have been a record.
Merim half-expected him to spit, the next logical action for a hick like him, not that she’d call him that to his face. Even someone as dense as Janus, missing both of his front teeth, had to know how ridiculous he looked. His backwards cap and wings of blond hair feathering around his ears were especially annoying today.
She dragged a large piece of dark, moist moss to him, rolling it up and brushing the slugs off it, before he stuffed it into his bag with the rest.
“Hey now, what’re you doing?” he asked, leaning down and scooping up the offending insects.
Merim cringed, “Oh geez, you’re not going to eat those, are you?”
Janus seemed to take pleasure in the disgusted look on her face, and tossed two slugs into his mouth. They were small, and as he bit down on them he stuck his tongue out towards her, Merim turned away trying not to wretch.
Janus was known for digging up worms and flipping rocks over to find bugs and other small vermin to snack on, and when times were lean everyone benefited from his foraging. Normally, however, he took the time to cook them up first. A cooked slug could really be a piece of bird meat if you squinted hard enough, but not raw and slimy as these were.
She removed a glove and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Despite the shady area they were in, she was sweating. Her clothes clung to her body under her arms and up her back.
“You are so gross,” she said. Then, she noticed a smirk on his face.
Merim took a quick look down at herself and saw that she’d lost a top button from her plaid shirt and that the left side of her bra was exposed. She fought a furious blush realizing Janus had probably seen it some time ago and hadn’t said anything – the pervert. She scowled at him. Her shirt was almost thread bare in some spots but it covered her body. This was important. She was the only female in their group of eight.
As awkward as it was sometimes, having to change clothes or when washing herself in the rivers or pools, or even when she had to find a concealed place to relieve herself, none of the men she traveled with had ever tried anything. She could always find a clump of tall Asiatic ferns or groupings of thick bamboo stalks to hide herself behind. She felt weirdly safe with them. Her father had always told her that it was safer for people, not just her, to group-up.
“Numbers mean strength and fights aren’t always fair,” he’d told her.
He’d also warned that while some men in the world might try to take advantage of her, most still knew the difference between right and wrong and knew that women should be protected.
Merim remembered the way his cheeks had reddened when she, only eleven years old, asked, “What does that mean, take advantage?” It was the only question she ever remembered her father fumbling to find an answer for, and by the end they were both so embarrassed she apologized for asking.
As her world changed, Merim was left with these scraps of lessons that seemed to merge together when she remembered them all. She’d started writing them down after her father mentioned to her that there would come a day when he might not be there. The idea was preposterous; it never occurred to her that the world could keep spinning without her father there.
She continued reciting the lessons the day after the group had left him behind, having been too occupied with her tears to start immediately.
It all happened incredibly fast. One morning Tanen was hauling tall, dried stalks of bamboo and leaves together for a fire and by that evening he’d come down with a burning fever. The next morning he struggled to get his legs to cooperate after he couldn’t feel his feet, even when Phaedon used one of Merim’s sewing needles to prick his toes. When he could no longer keep water down the group gathered around the campfire, just out of ear shot, to decide their next move.
“I don’t think he’s got long anyway, Phae.”
The tin of tea leaves was passed around and some took a pinch in their cups to steep. What any one of them would have given for a pint of cold beer or a nip of aged whiskey at that moment. Something, anything, to take the edge off of the situation they now found themselves in
“But if it were you, how would you feel if we just up and left you behind?”
“What good does it do for us all to get sick?” Mouse countered. The man, shorter and quieter than the rest, spoke up. “What if it catches?”
Phaedon looked at him and saw the stress around his eyes and noted how gray his hair had become. It was common for this one to work with Tanen daily, Mouse being the brains while Tanen provided the braun.
The pipe was passed around, and long hauls were pulled from it while they considered.
“That fever is strange. Are you sure he wasn’t bit by something?”
“He was in the bamboo. There’s tonnes of those chinese stinging beetles in there.”
As they talked, a few of the men were sipping from mugs of hot tea, some continued smoking while one man sat barefoot on the ground mending a hole in his sock.
“I think he’s sick. I been stung by those and nothing like this ever happened to me,” he offered, inspecting his work. He slid his socks back on and buried his feet in boots that had seen better days.
“What if it is contagious? We’re all at risk hanging around here. Nothing against Tanen, but we’re best to start walking.”
Phaedon heard every word and nodded absently as his men found themselves on the same page and formulated a plan, while he watched a young girl wipe sweat from her father’s forehead.
A memory he’d beaten back into submission years earlier tried to invade his present mind, and Phaedon blinked it back and cursed it.
I don’t want to see that again. It won’t help a thing, he thought angrily.
Meanwhile, Tanen had begun stringing words and names together that Merim couldn’t understand. He talked about her as if she wasn’t beside him or holding his hand. He was telling someone named Maxime how beautiful she was and how much Merim took after her and how proud she’d be. He cried without tears, having become too dehydrated to form any, and once he’d gone quiet and seemed to rest, they covered him with a blanket and said their goodbyes, and all but tore Merim’s hand from his.
Phaedon tucked the blanket up to Tanen’s chin and noted the shallow breaths and the grey tinge his skin had taken.
“I’ll take care of her,” he told his dying friend. “I’ll protect her.”
She struggled for a long while against the tight grip Phaedon kept on her. Eventually he scooped her up and carried her over his shoulder and let her cry once she had screamed herself hoarse. When they stopped for the night, Phaedon had sat next to her to make sure she didn’t try to go back. Merim had exhausted herself and was asleep within moments of hitting the ground.
“I know what it’s like,” he said quietly to her as she slept. “And it is gonna hurt like hell for a long, long time.”
Phaedon was poking the fire back to life, the spit hung above it heavy with a dripping carcass that was starting to brown and crackle.
“She was slackin’ again,” Janus announced, “takin’ forever.”
Phaedon stood up, looking at the pair.
Merim stood, raising her eyebrows but fighting the urge to roll her eyes. Phaedon hated that; she’d caught a slap, only once, for doing it. She had been horrified that he’d struck her and he was instantly wrought with guilt. The shock of it got the message across and her eyes had not rolled since.
She took off her other glove, and moved to place them near the fire to dry. It being her last pair, the last thing she wanted was for them to rot.
Tilting his head, Phaedon looked from Janus to Merim and then to the bag of moss.
“Looks like a good haul, eh? Good to sleep on a few days?”
“We should try to dry it a bit first,” Merim said, quietly. “You could catch cold if you get damp through the night.” She was trying to keep the front of her shirt closed with one hand.
“Good idea,” Phaedon nodded. “Janus, you spread it out there.”
Janus huffed, wide-eyed and exasperated. “Why can’t she do it?”
Phaedon’s expression did not change despite his annoyance. “Because I asked you to do it.”
Janus gave Merim a dirty look before he started tossing the green chunks out of the bag, doing as he was told. He was not going to argue further, apparently.
There had been days, in the beginning, when things had been different; uncomfortable as everyone found their place. Phaedon had not set out to lead them, or anyone. He’d come into the group barely past his teenage years, but had the charisma and tempermant of one that was lead by an old soul. He was the sort of person that others naturally looked to for direction and listened to without much question. He was reliable, he was fair and he was smart. In his former life he’d lead people, but former lives were not something many of them talked about; it was a preference they all had in common. Everyone was leaving something behind and talking about it meant drawing hurts and regrets and other feelings closer again.
Merim and her father, Tanen, had come upon Phaedon and his small group by chance. Both of them were heading along the same fresh water, against the base of the mountains, towards each other until one day they collided. The first night they’d shared the fire and Tanen had won Phaedon over with the last of his instant coffee. Late into the night they’d talked and despite her best efforts, a then 12-year old Merim had fallen asleep before learning they would join together to travel from that point forward. It had been nearly 6 years since then, and barely 2 since she’d been left in the care of her foster motley crew of a family.
“What happened to your shirt?” Phaedon had snuck up on her, in that way that he had despite his larger build.
“Just a button gone,” she said. She moved her hand slightly to show him.
He held her gaze, raising his eyebrows to her as if asking a question. She knew what he was asking, he didn’t need to say it. She looked towards Janus and then to the others who had started gathering for supper, and shook her head enough for Phaedon to see.
“Just a button,” she repeated. She didn’t smile, but he accepted her answer and left it alone, believing her.
As they ate, Merim couldn’t help but think of their group as if they were a pack of coyotes. They smelled food and they all came running, crowded around to feast. The alpha took his share and the rest dove in, with hands instead of teeth and jowls but still as messy, tearing pieces for themselves without concern for other stomachs.
Merim had managed to grab a piece from a flank that was largely overcooked. While the others wiped the dribbled juices from their chins and beards, she chewed the tough meat and savored the charred flavor.
A memory tickled the edge of her brain, the black and ash on her fingers triggering an image of another burned meal surrounded by laughter. Lots of laughter. A woman and a man; his voice familiar but hers was too faint to recall the owner.
“I told you I can’t cook,” the flowery voice spoke, fading like an echo.
“Oh my dear,” the husky voice of her father rumbled, “I even love that you could burn water if you tried to cook it.”
Merim closed her eyes and tried to hold the memory, to pluck another detail of the stranger sharing it with her father. Like always, it was gone like smoke on a breeze and Merim was left wanting and sad for something she’d never had.
Merim poked at the mushrooms on her plate, slimy and oddly textured. Another of the group had collected them and offered them for dinner. His pride at the find had been deflated when everyone passed. Their color was too bright when they were fresh. Now that they were cooked their color had dulled but something suggested to Merim that it would be best not to eat them. She’d taken some to be polite, and it had won her a smile and seemingly helped the man regain some of his self-worth as he returned to carrying on with the group at the fire. As no one was watching her, Merim took the opportunity to fling the fungus back into the bushes.
About this story
Merim & The Fourth is a dystopian, sci-fi tale for young adults. The idea began with my interest in writing a story for my daughters, with a strong female lead in a land that is very real but has a very dream-like, fantastical quality about it. I explained the story to my then 7-year old, who said it sounded good – but it needed a ‘dragon’! Unable to shake the idea, there is in fact more than one dragon, which absolutely brought the story to another level.